PRIESTS WITHOUT BORDERS
Inspired by the true story of Argentinian priest and activist Father Mugica, director Pablo Trapero’s White Elephant follows priests, Julián and Nicolás, and social worker, Luciana throughout their struggle to bring change to the violent, crime-ridden Buenos-Aires neighbourhood slum of Villa Virgin.
After narrowly escaping a bloody massacre in the amazon jungle, the far-flung Father Nicolás is left physically bloodied and emotionally tortured by the brutalities he witnessed. Retrieved by fellow man of the cloth Julián, the pair abscond back to Argentina, which minus some finer aesthetic details, appears just as troubled and developing as the lawless land from which they have just returned. Not officially ‘on the map’ and possessing a skyline dominated by the unfinished and dilapidated hospital which towers above it (derisively nicknamed Elefante Blanco) the slum currently toils in the throes of a poverty born from decades of socio-political unrest and inequality.
As the three struggle to manage the construction of new amenities and a housing project alongside their spiritual guidance of the neighbourhood’s inhabitants, and one another’s personal demons and desires, the obstacles they face seemingly grow more insurmountable by the day. Drugs, their dealers and the crimes committed as a means of fuelling habits are a constant influence upon the slum – proving far more omnipotent than religious verse. Warring factions constantly threaten the lives of all who come into contact with them whether directly or indirectly – a sequence following Nicolás’ retrieval of a murdered teenager’s body proves extremely potent in highlighting everyday life and death consequences of the slum. Though it is when the picture focuses upon the group’s achievements and failures, especially in aiding their youthful flock, it finds its most tender and moving moments, highlighting that beyond the statistics, lay numerous nuanced and well-written characters whose stories are extremely worthy of telling.
Sound ultimately plays an important role throughout White Elephant distinctly juxtaposing the conflict between faith, morality and slum-life. The heavily diegetic soundtrack enhances the picture’s clear emphasis upon depicting a realistic and thriving environment – which can be as beautiful as it is savage. The thrum of generators, exotic birdsong, and gunfire followed by the flat thud of racing feet fleeing from the scene, all contribute to Elefante Blanco’s day to day melodies. When the score is introduced, its high-pitched ecclesiastical organ notes and rousing orchestral movements offer a fleeting distraction from the harsh realities on-screen, drawing an introspective focus upon the emotional and intangible elements of the picture – such as the troublesome bonds between characters and their adopted home.
Hard-hitting depictions of slum-life are by no means alien to cinema screens, in-fact over the last few years they have been incredibly popular spanning from the favela delving City of God to Danny Boyle’s Oscar darling, Slumdog Millionaire. What sets White Elephant apart from the crowd is its level of immersion and its ability to draw all those exterior elements into an insular story of three individuals’ personal struggle with their faith and its place in modern society. Successful world cinema ultimately transcends the obvious language barriers it presents, immersing you into unique cultural representations and gifting audiences with a deeper knowledge and understanding of the world not just outside their window, but the windows of global societies. White Elephant does exactly that whilst riding a strong, often thrilling and most importantly, always authentic narrative current through its sea of humanity, in the form of Julián, Nicolás and Luciana, all the way to its shocking climax.