Following on from his excellent Carancho , Pablo Trapero offers another diverting meditation on corruption and social desperation in his native Argentina. As we have come to expect from this director, the film deftly combines narrative pace with an acute grasp of the political undercurrents. Such is the bustle and momentum of the story that one never feels oneself being lectured.
Trapero presents us with familiar characters: the experienced, slightly world-weary priest and a more idealistic, less patient younger counterpart. “You don’t know how to hate,” fresh-faced Fr Nicolás (Jérémie Renier) says to veteran Fr Julián (Ricardo Darín, Argentina’s busiest actor). He’s only half right.
The film begins ominously with Julián receiving a brain scan. Later he travels to the Amazon to locate Nicolás, who has recently survived a massacre. When they return, the two men get to work in a Buenos Aires shantytown called Villa Maria.
Nicolás takes a proactive approach: he becomes close to a female colleague (the brilliant but somewhat underused Martina Gusman) and attempts to mediate with the locale’s hoodlums. When a police raid occurs, Julian attempts to calm the populace.
The film is dedicated to the inspirational Carlos Mugica, a campaigning priest who was assassinated in 1974, and it allows Julián time to meditate on the great man’s legacy. The picture also manages to cram in considerations of corruption in the construction industries.
Shot in wide-screen, nicely scored by Michael Nyman, White Elephant combines a rough, vérité feel (Renier worked on the last Dardennes brothers picture) with the scope of a small epic. The narrative does occasionally dip into melodrama, but the strong cast bring such conviction to their performances that one rarely detects any drift towards soap operatics.