White Elephant* Review

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Score

Two priests kick ass for the Lord in this gem from Argentina's Pablo Trapero.

"You’re one of the cool ones," a slum kid observes to the new priest as he ingratiates himself with talk of "partying" and a facility with curse words. Is he ever. Collars rakishly unbuttoned, Father Julián (Ricardo Darín) and Father Nicolás (Jérémie Renier), his Belgian protégé, answer the call in their Buenos Aires slum parish.

Their vocation extends to urban renewal, as they fight a municipal bureaucracy and conservative diocese to make a residential high-rise out of a long-unfinished hospital-cum-squat, while social worker Luisa (Martina Gusmán) placates disgruntled construction workers.

It extends to fighting drugs, as they venture into a kingpin’s lair to bring a turf-war casualty home for burial and keep the peace. It extends to manning the grill and cutting a rug at a block party; and to mopping up the church when it floods after rain.

They also face more personal trials. Nicolás, charming when bumming a smoke or a beer, runs out of banter when an at-risk teen’s talk turns to sex; is it a coincidence that he can’t get his collar on after his first meeting with Luisa? And Julián is stricken with a cruelly arbitrary illness, the side effects of which include gnawing doubt and battle-weariness. But the fiery newcomer and seasoned mentor — like in a cop drama — endure with soulful charisma.

Renier’s tormented sensitivity makes him all the more sensual in his (wavering) chastity; Darín’s hangdog suavity here scans as weight-of-the-world gravitas. They’re cinema’s most heart-throbbing moral beacons since Belmondo in Melville’s Léon Morin, Priest.

Director Pablo Trapero matches their vigour with long takes choreographed for a hustling-news-crew camera, reminiscent of Children Of Men or Miss Bala, whose milieu of urban warfare the sequences also sometimes echo, as when Nicolás and Julián shepherd kids to sanctuary during a police raid. This is rousing, populist entertainment, with crises of faith, ominous external forces, masses of extras and maturing subplots rushing headlong towards convergence.

Trapero’s invocation of belief feels worldly and urgent, and makes a refreshing change from the recent default setting of arthouse asceticism. But the lofty ambitions make the slickness seem reductive. Julián and Nicolás’ crusade keeps circling back to one troubled youth they’re trying to save — as if their true devotion, finally, is to dramatic structure.

The engagement with a specific denomination, rather than I-definitely-consider-myself-a-spiritual-person vagueness, is commendable (and far more engrossing), but White Elephant remains at times frustratingly slippery. Despite frequent nods to liberation theologian and Dirty War martyr Carlos Mugica, Trapero never brings the politics of the Argentine Catholic Church into clear focus, so that Julián’s struggles against its hierarchy seem merely generic.

The ending, equally committed to righteous action and resigned to its ultimate futility, is worthy, and Trapero stages moments with the timeliness of frontline anthropology and the timelessness of parable, like a funeral procession with the deceased in a soccer jersey and sombre mourners fi ring handguns at the rainy sky. But he’s equally prone to linger too  long and too close on an upside-down crucifix. Tastes great, less filling.

Anticipation

Writer/director Pablo Trapero and leading man Ricardo Darín are the class of mainstream Argentine cinema.

3

Enjoyment

A wellconstructed, genuinely thrilling drama about spiritual endurance and social commitment.

4

In Retrospect

Sermons are like movies: once you step out of their thrall and back into the harsh light of day, things begin to occur to you.

4
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