Elefante Blanco – White Elephant

This is a must-see movie (trailer here with English subtitles) for anyone involved in urban ministry (or in any ministry, for that matter).  I had the privilege of watching it at TIFF this year with my Film, Prophecy and Culture class with Brian Walsh (yes, I go to an awesome seminary where I can take classes like this).

Here’s the review I did for the class:

“The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood…”[1]

“No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends”[2]

“The violence we preach is not the violence of the sword, the violence of hatred.  It is the violence of love…”[3]

The Violence of Love in White Elephant

Although White Elephant[4] tells the story of Julián and Nicloás, two Catholic priests working in the “Villa Virgin” shantytown in the slums of Buenos Aires, Argentina, the main character of the film is the eponymous White Elephant, the name the slum residents have given to the gigantic building that looms over their homes.  The White Elephant was promised to be the largest and best equipped hospital in South America, yet it remains unfinished with no prospects of ever being completed and, except for the drug addicts who use its roof as a place to get high, abandoned.  Idiomatically, “white elephant” is a term used to describe a potentially “valuable but burdensome possession of which its owner cannot dispose and whose cost (particularly cost of upkeep) is out of proposition to its usefulness or worth”.[5]  Indeed, the name White Elephant is fitting, both in terms of size and function.  Unlike the purpose for which it was initially conceived, the lifeless White Elephant is a symbol and reminder of death that continually haunts the residents of the slum below.

The first shot of the White Elephant is a long take that follows Julián and Nicloás as they walk through the labyrinthine halls of the White Elephant.  This shot is a fitting visual introduction to the film as it reveals the vastness and emptiness of the White Elephant, underlining its dominant and forbidding presence in the lives of the residents of Villa Virgin.  The use of long takes and the nimble camera work, not to mention the superb acting of the leads, throughout the film skillfully captures life in the slums, showing both the beauty and brutality[6], allowing the action to unfold naturally without recourse to editing gimmicks in an attempt to intensify the violence.  Moreover, in each of the long takes, there is no musical score; the gunshots, running feet, scooter engines, yelling and crying are the only soundtrack, heightening both the realism and intensity.[7]  In one of the long takes, Nicloás and some of the kids are painting a mural on the side of a building only to be interrupted by yells of “the pigs are coming!”  As the scene unfolds, the audience becomes wrapped up in the chaos as heavily armed police officers descend on the slum in a drug raid and ends as Julián has a stroke.  The audience also participates in the stark brutality of slum life in the long take that follows Nicloás through the winding alleys of the slum as he tracks down the body of Mario, a young man shot and killed during a gang battle.[8]

What is also striking about this scene is that a priest is able to enter into the compound of a drug lord for a face-to-face parlay with her.  This is where the theological weight of the film begins to manifest.  At a tremendous risk to his own life, Nicolás doesn’t enter with a moralizing intent against the drug dealers; he goes in order to demand she return the body of Mario, a rival gang member, to his family.  For Nicolás, relationships, not principles, are what matter most.  This shows the remarkable level of trust and respect that the slum residents, drug dealers included, have for Julián and Nicloás and the work that they do.  Moreover, it speaks to the way in which Julián and Nicloás carry out their ministry in the slum.  Granted, they do share some strong differences of opinion about how to best carry out their ministry, but overall they are committed to serving as Christ’s hands and feet to the poorest of the poor.  Rarely in films, Christian and “secular” alike, is the work of ministry portrayed with such realism, both in terms of life in the street and in the physical, spiritual, emotional, and psychological toll it can take on those who serve.  Throughout the film, Julián, Nicloás, and Luciana work tirelessly to build relationships and tend to whatever needs they are able, all the while struggling with their faith and the apparent futility of their work in the face of violence and brutality.  Hopelessness, broken relationships, drugs, and violence are a way of life in the slum.  The body count and the human toll rise every day.  And yet, in the midst of this, we find two priests who persistently attempt to bring some level of hope and dignity to people shattered by violence, determined to shed some light in the darkness.  They are an incarnational presence in a place that so desperately needs healing and restoration.

But we know that the Incarnation ultimately leads to the Crucifixion.

In the climactic scene of the film, Julián and Nicloás are attempting to bring Monito, a teenage boy caught in the cycle of gang violence, to the hospital after he’d been seriously injured during a raid where police are looking for the killer of an undercover police officer.  Although Julián and Nicloás know that Monito is the murderer, they remain willing to help him get to the hospital, refusing to turn him over to the police.  When their car is stopped at a police checkpoint, Julián and Nicloás are forced out of the car.  Monito, who has been hiding in the backseat, attempts to run away.  It is at this point the most visceral violence of the film erupts.[9]  The boy is a sinner, a murderer, someone who, motivated by revenge, has taken the life of another; the type of person that pious and holy people like priests are not supposed to be around.  And yet, out of their deep love for a troubled boy caught in the downward spiral of violence, Julián and Nicloás are willing to risk everything, including their very lives, to protect him, despite his culpability.  As seen throughout the film, they desire nothing more than his liberation from violence.

As the film winds to its conclusion, we are left wondering about the impact of the preceding events and how it will affect the residents of the slum and the ministry.  After crucifixion, is resurrection possible?  The film ends with some ambiguity about what will happen next in the lives of the protagonists, but not without a hint of despair that the violence will continue to wreak havoc.  However, upon thinking of the opening scene of the film in which Nicloás cowers in fear, hiding for his own life, the audience becomes aware that it has witnessed a transformation, a conversion if you will, in Nicloás’ life that leads him to come to the point of such radical love that he is willing to sacrifice his life, like Julián, for the sake of others.  As Julián once said to Nicloás, “Yesterday’s violence is not equal to today’s, but our love remains the same”.  In these words, a glimmer of hope is restored.  In the face of such steadfast love, violence will not ultimately win; the White Elephant does not get the final word.  That word belongs to love, the same love that is so great that it moved into the neighborhood and give itself up for the sake of others.

[1] John 1:14 The Message

[2] John 15:13 CEB

[3] Oscar Romero

[4] Elefanto Blanco (original title), directed by Argentine filmmaker Pablo Trapero, (2012).

[5] Definition from http://www.dictionary.com

[6] Beauty amidst brutality is one of the recurring themes of the film – for example, when Julián absolves Nicloás; Nicloás’ relationship with Luciana; children playing in the streets of the slum.

[7] That being said, in other parts of the film, the music beautifully amplifies the emotion on the screen.

[8] The interruption of violence into the lives of the residents is a recurring theme of the film.  The opening scene of the film sets this up well with the original tranquility of the jungle mission interrupted by the massacre that ensues.  This is also repeated in scenes in the slums, for instance, during a baptismal service, a fight quickly breaks out between some of the boys.  In addition to the contrasts between beauty and brutality, Trapero also juxtaposes the opulence of the church and the destitution of the slums by immediately cutting from scenes in the slums to those in the richly decorated church offices and cathedral.  Although the wealth of the church is clearly on display in these offices through the lavish flatware and decoration, this beauty, in reality, this beauty shown to be quite ugly and superficial because it is repeatedly unable to deal with the poverty in the slum and pulls its funding from the construction project that would have provided housing and a community centre to the residents.  To be clear, because of the very sympathetic portrayal of the priests, this is less a critique of the church as people and more a critique of the church as institution.  In fact, the entire film serves as a critique of institutions and bureaucracies that remain inept to do anything about the pain and suffering in the world.  The skeletal hulk of the White Elephant is a continual reminder of the failure of institutions qua institutions.

[9] It is also one of the best shot scenes of the movie as well.  The camera is placed at a medium distance and does not follow the action, which takes place to the right of the frame.  The viewer is forced to watch the scene unfold at an unaffected pace.  Once again there is no music soundtrack, only the natural sounds, which make the scene that much more potent considering that it is filmed almost entirely in the shadows with the only light coming from the flashing lights on the police car, a dimly lit street lamp, and natural ambient light.  The audience members are helpless witnesses to what unfolds.


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