While in Buenos Aires, I had the opportunity to watch Pablo Trapero's newly released film, Elefante Blanco. With Pablo Trapero, it is always a guess what you will get. He is one of the most solid, consistent directors in Argentina. He can shoot a scene and narrate a story like very few directors can. Not every critic likes him. Some miss the minimalism of his first film, Mundo Grua (1999). While I understand the importance of Mundo Grua in the renewal of Argentine cinema at the end of the XXth century, I prefer his second film, EL BONAERENSE.
Elefante Blanco is the story of two Third World priests, Julian and Nicolas, working in a "villa miseria" (slum) in Buenos Aires while two different drug gangs fight for the territory. The movie is flawed in many ways, but definitely worth seeing. What are the strengths and the weaknesses of the movie?
Let's start commenting the highlights of the movie with an anecdote. I have a Brazilian friend who is a film critic for an important Brazilian newspaper. As such, he gets invited to many film festival. He once told me the surreal story of the day the French Embassy decided to host the opening screening and ceremony of a French Film Festival in Rio de Janeiro... in the top of a favela!!! Let's just say that after watching Trapero's film, no French diplomat will ever consider hosting the opening ceremony of a French Film Festival in Buenos Aires in a "villa miseria". There lies the best thing about the movie. The mise-en-scene, the way it is shot, is the opposite of that awful Cidade de Deus, with its pornographic aestheticism of violence. Violence is not choreographed, and is only used when it serves a narrative purpose.
Why am I not more enthusiast about the film? Because the script is weak. There are too many subplots. Some are completely unnecessary, and others could be the focus of the story just on their own. As a result, there are too many loose ends. Furthermore, the character played by Ricardo Darin (as one of the priests) makes no sense. Maybe it's because I've gotten to know many Third World priests because of my job. But all those priests I know would never behave like Darin's character does. The ending is particularly disappointing. However, it doesn't ruin the movie. The other priest, played Jérémie Renier, is very well developed and constructed. The good parts are strong enough to overcome its weaknesses. In addition, for me, it will be a very useful movie to use in a classroom and spark discussions. To sum up, the mise-en-scene and Jérémie Renier overcome the less than stellar script, and make the movie worth watching. Here is a trailer, as a teaser: