Monday, March 18, 2013

"White Elephant": a "poor" Catholic church in Argentina, in practice


The Argentinian film “White Elephant” (“Elefante Blanco”), by Pablo Treparo, in its look, calls to mind an 80s film, “The Mission”, that I saw at school a number of years ago when I was substitute teaching. 
   
The title refers to the ruins of a tuberculosis sanatorium built near Buenos Aries in the 1930s, abandoned and now the heart (and symbol) of a shantytown  (“Villa Virgin”) in the suburbs of what (in the 50s) encyclopedias had called “the most beautiful city in the world”.   We usually “get to see” the slums around Rio or Sao Paulo in the movies;  Argentina has tended to keep its poverty out of sight until now. Movies, as they say, take you to another world, and this one certainly does (and it is no “Emerald City”).

In this movie, the Marxists are rather the good buys, and the capitalist guerillas represent right-wing totalitarianism.  I don’t know where this fits into Argentinian history – which is a problem with getting an audience for a film like this in the U.S.

The intermediate backdrop of the film is the death of Father Joseph Mujica in 1974, from a right-wing gunman.  In modern times, a hippy-like Father Julian (Ricardo Darin) wants to use the stories of miracles performed by the deceased legendary Mujica to get political support for a new hospital. But entering the picture is his friend, a volatile French priest Nicolas (Jeremie Renier), who has left a difficult situation where an earlier village “mission” was destroyed by rogue outlaws.  He wants to engage the drug kingpins and convert them, whereas Julian fears that will make priests combatants.  Nicolas befriends an atheist young woman and social worker Luciana (Martina Gusman). 

Nicolas and Luciana actually rescue a kid who throws up in their car, but then they begin to fall in love.  Nicolas will not keep his vows of abstinence.  He is capable of temptation in more than one direction.
Julian (the “slum priest”) and Nicolas will be tested when the ghetto explodes near the end.  The scene reminded me of the conclusion of a 1966 film, “The Chase”. 

The film is interesting and timely now because an Argentinian has been crowned as Pope Francis, and we know that he is deeply committed to poverty, and to conservative social mores which of course challenge the celibate priesthood.

The solemn music score by Michael Nyman is brooding and quite effective.  The film is shot in full 2.35:1 and the realism of the poverty in the outdoor scenes is overwhelming.

  
A site from the Tiff Festival is here    
  
I received a private online link for a review screening.  

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