Fr. Julian (Ricardo Darin) and Fr. Nicolas (Jérémie Renier) work tirelessly in the slums of Buenos Aires in Pablo Trapero’s White Elephant. Photo courtesy of GAT Productions

Film seeks to find hope in hopelessness of Argentine slum

By 
  • September 22, 2012

TORONTO - Sacrifice and temptation are common among priests in the fictional shantytown of Villa Maria in the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires. But director Pablo Trapero is intent on art imitating life in White Elephant.

The film focuses on two priests of the Third World Church who are somewhat isolated from the larger Church body because they live and work in slums. They are devoted to helping Argentina’s poor like their predecessors in the 1960s and ’70s, but do not always live the holiest of lives.

“I like to put the camera in their lives because they are unknown,” said Trapero, who was in Toronto mid-September for the screening of White Elephant at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film is in Spanish, with English subtitles.

Though he emphasizes the movie is fictional, Trapero felt it was important to give the priests, social workers and numerous others working a space to show what it means to exist in the slums of his homeland.

The film gets its title from a real White Elephant, a still-unfinished hospital in the Argentinian slum known as the Hidden City. The hospital was meant to be the largest of its kind in all of South America when on-again off-again construction began in the 1930s, but now the homeless turn to it for shelter. For Trapero, the hospital symbolizes “this idea of the dream that became a nightmare.”

This theme of lost hope is not limited to architecture, but is perpetually emphasized in the priests’ lives. Fr. Julián (Ricardo Darín) is what a Third World priest should be: dedicated and unselfish. Coming from a well-off family, he chose to spend years living with the people he ministers to.

“He has the luxury to decide to be poor,” Trapero said.

Fr. Julián uses his influence with the higher-ups of the Church to try to gain resources for the people in the slum. To do so, he must travel to the nearby urban centre, demonstrating that the divide between rich and very poor is a short car ride away.

Back in the slums, he tries to diplomatically navigate a world of warring drug lords and police that divide his flock and endanger the youth he tries so hard to protect. But after years in the slums, he is ill and, now facing his own mortality, struggles to suppress feelings of bitterness and anger.

Fr. Nicolás (Jérémie Renier) is the younger, cooler priest, originally from France, who the youth admire and who crosses a line Fr. Julián believes priests shouldn’t in a dangerous slum. Fr. Nicolás comes to Villa Maria after a violent incident in the Amazon. He suffers from survivor’s guilt and believes he doesn’t deserve God’s love. Though he turns to Fr. Julián, a long-time friend and his confessor, for spiritual guidance, he also turns to social worker Luciana (Martina Gusman) for physical comfort.

According to Trapero, Fr. Nicolás follows intuition more than rules and thinks too much of his needs, rather than the needs of others.

“You know when you should do something, but you decide not to do it,” Trapero said in reference to Fr. Nicolás.

But White Elephant is nothing like the 1983 American mini-series The Thorn Birds, where a priest is torn between his ecclesiastical goals and his love of a woman. Fr. Nicolás feels no guilt about his relations with Luciana, said Trapero.

“They are trying to be close and support each other in their life, but they are not pretending they will have a family.”

Trapero’s film does not hold priests to a holier-than-thou standard, but portrays them as men who chose a difficult vocation and who deal with it in their own imperfect ways.

Trapero shines light on life in all its misery. The scenes in White Elephant appear as if they were filmed slowly, when really life happens in such a steady pace. And as a result, the film is dull at times, like the monotony of life can be, yet the scenes of sorrow, death and passion are more prolonged and pronounced.

“Love is what they are trying to understand, not just love about God or about a woman,” Trapero said. “Everything they do is moved by love.” It is love that has Fr. Julián and Fr. Nicolás risking their lives for the youth of Villa Maria.

“It’s easy to be a martyr. To be a hero too,” said Fr. Julián. “The hardest thing is working day after day knowing your work is meaningless.”

And that is the question that lingers once the film is finished: In the face of dreams turned to nightmares, is their work meaningless or is the fact that there are priests who continue to work tirelessly in the slums hope enough?

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