Pablo Trapero makes punchy, unblinking films with their eyes firmly on real-world problems – including 2010’s ‘Carancho’ and 2008’s ‘Lion’s Den’. The Argentinian’s latest plunges us into a Buenos Aires slum which sits in the shadow of a vast, unfinished hospital (the ‘white elephant’ of the title). Here, community workers and priests collaborate to finish a housing project that’s strapped for cash and keep the peace between gangs. We follow two muscular priests, Father Nicolás (Ricardo Darin, pictured), a slightly more establishment figure, and Father Julián (Jérémie Renier), a Belgian missionary who is fresh from a violent conflict in a remote village and whose vow of chastity is challenged by a good-looking social worker, Luciana (Martina Gusman).
There’s something unexpectedly timely about ‘White Elephant’ now that we have an Argentinian Pope who stresses the pastoral role of the church. There are lots of interesting ideas about the responsibilities of church workers to their superiors, their flock and themselves, and Nicolás and Julián represent more spiritual and pragmatic ways of keeping a community on side. But, thematically, ‘White Elephant’ is a vague animal and its true interest never truly comes into focus. The film is much more successful as a portrait of a place. Trapero’s location work with cinematographer Guillermo Nieto is arresting, and ‘White Elephant’ throws us into the fray of an urban slum without in any way demonising or romanticising the theatre within which Trapero’s meandering story unfolds.