(Pablo Trapero, 2012)
Pablo Trapero has grown more assured and dextrous as a storyteller with each successive film. And yet, as his films have become increasingly ambitious and confident, it seems he receives less and less attention outside his native Argentina. His early status as a wunderkind of the New Argentine cinema was founded on the gritty, low budget social realism of films like Crane World and El Bonaerense. Critics, in particular, like their social realism gritty and low budget. Trapero still makes social realist cinema; its just that these days his budgets are bigger, and his craftsmanship means that he can stretch the money further than most. White Elephant, for instance, is a slick, beautiful, dazzlingly made drama of life in a Buenos Aires slum as seen through the eyes of a couple of Priests. That those priests are played by International arthouse stars Ricardo Darin (as Father Julian, the Parish Priest for the slum) and Jeremie Renier (as a Belgian traumatised by an incident of murder in the Amazon we glimpse in an elliptical opening scene) is another difference with Trapero's early work, where unknowns in major roles added a seeming level of authenticity.
Both Renier and Darin are terrific here - even if the latter is somewhat underused - as is Trapero's wife and muse Martina Gusman as a social worker with whom Renier's priest falls in love. But the most impressive aspect of the film is its casually epic look at the daily life of this barrio, built as it is around the immense skeleton of an abandoned and unfinished hospital building and constructed mainly of shacks made of cinderblocks, plywood and corrugated metal. Drug gangs engage in open armed warfare in the underlit alleyways by night, but in the daytime the place seems to hum with companionable affection and happy, social humanity.
The priests say mass, baptise children, give last rites to gangsters, help out addicts, give out food and try to organise the construction of some better housing, all the while dealing with Church politics and their own demons. Trapero shoots much of this on location in sinuous, breathtakingly long takes, his camera following these characters as they walk the streets and pathways, peaking in an incredible sequence when Renier's priest visits the lair of a Druglord and passes through level after level of security , past wounded henchmen and drug factories, the camera following him every step of the way. This material is fascinating, moving and at times extremely gripping, depicting a world I had never seen before with warmth, humour and empathy.
Trapero is great at unblinking realism, but since the excellent Born And Bred in 2007 his films have been increasingly good at capturing the (often existential) angst and suffering of his lost characters, and White Elephant is no different.
Both Renier, with his crippling survivors guilt and his feelings for Gusman's character, and Darin's struggles with his own anger and mortality are given poetic expression by Trapero's camera and the impressive actors. Nothing is ever made too obvious or too overt, the storytelling is often entirely wordless; and yet, we never doubt what is happening or how these characters are feeling.