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Non-Review Review: White Elephant (Elefante Blanco)

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2013.

Elefante Blanco is visually stunning. Director Pablo Trapero makes excellent use of the film’s setting to construct compelling and powerful images, as characters get lost amid the slums or wander through the ruins of the long-abandoned shell of what might have been the largest hospital in South America. Unfortunately, for all the visceral and visual energy that Elefante Blanco packs, it feels remarkably shallow and trite in its portrayal of life inside those slums, and the challenges facing two priests trying to help the community get back on their feet.

Don't worry, we can build on this...

Don’t worry, we can build on this…

Even a week after seeing Elefante Blanco, I can’t decide whether the film is hopelessly cynical or blindly naive. It seems like Trapero expects us to empathise and root for the priests working in the slum, to hope that they might somehow be able to make a meaningful difference despite all the pressure weighted against them. That could be the case, but the film paints the pair as too hopelessly innocent and optimistic to ever really convince the audience to invest in their story.

So the film instead becomes an extended effort in watching a bunch of hopelessly naive individuals try to fight off an inevitable failure. That’s not a bad thing. After all, there’s something tragic about character trying to do the right thing despite the fact that they are doomed from the opening scene. However, it’s hard to empathise with characters who seem like they are either unaware of pragmatic realities or unwilling to even acknowledge them.

Up the creek, with a paddle...

Up the creek, with a paddle…

There is a subtle difference between being optimistic and being foolhardy. The movie’s grandly tragic finalé makes the mistake of confusing the two. It relies on one of the leads making a decision that is well-intentioned, but also incredibly stupid. The character’s fate is sealed the moment that he makes this decision, and so it’s very hard to be shocked and appalled at the consequences. The world as presented in Elefante Blanco is cruel and bitter and tragic, and it’s very hard not to be moved in some way by that.

However, tragedy isn’t quite as powerful when it is the result of an ill-judged decision – particularly when the decision is made by Julián, the priest who is supposed to be more familiar with the slums. Indeed, the film goes out of its way to paint the older and more experienced Julián as more pragmatic than his younger colleague, Nicolas. The climax of the story is forced more by contrivance and idiocy than by tragedy and drama.

Slumming it...

Slumming it…

And it is indicative of a lot of the problems with Elefante Blanco. Situations like this are tragic and terrible. Life in the slum is hard, and those people who do good work are often obstructed by those in authority. The self-interest of those in the slum doesn’t always mirror the community’s interests. These are hardly novel themes, and Elefant Blanco suffers because it requires its two leads to be impossibly naive in dealing with the realities around them.

It doesn’t help that the film compounds this by relying on cheap and trite cliché. Inevitably one of the priests gets too emotionally involved, and one is nursing a secret of his own. None of this feels organic. None of this feels like an honest reflection of what life must be like in these circumstances. Director Pablo Trapero has dedicated the film to the assassinated Father Carlos Mugica, but that doesn’t lend the story any legitimacy. Yes, the broader details might be accurate, but none of the characters feel real.

It couldn't be father from the truth...

It couldn’t be father from the truth…

That’s a shame, because Trapero is a fine director. Indeed, his direction captures a sense of moral ambiguity and uncertainty much better than anything that actually appears in the script. For example, he does some absolutely wonderful sequences involving characters fleeing and running through the dilapidated slums, creating the impression of a moral labyrinth, where nothing is truly certain and there’s no way of knowing where each turn will take you. It creates a more palpable sense of unease and uncertainty than any of the characters or dialogue.

His sequences inside the eponymous tower block are also effective, offering a glimpse into a whole other sort of world. There’s something very powerful about the hallow shell of the building converted into its own slum. Similarly, the movie only seems to come alive when Trapero films confrontations between the authorities and the residents, constructing some wonderful one-take shots that underscore the chaos of the situation very well.

Not kidding around...

Not kidding around…

Unfortunately, it isn’t quite enough to redeem what is otherwise a very clumsy (if well-intentioned) social drama. Good intentions and superb direction cannot salvage a misguided mess of a script. In a way, Elefante Blanco ends up resembling the eponymous structure. It’s an outline of a good idea that has – through fate and circumstance – forced those involved to make the best of it.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 2

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