Trapero’s previous film, 2010’s acclaimed crime drama “Carancho,” starred the actor who is the greatest asset in "White Elephant": Ricardo Darin. Best known stateside as the sad-eyed star of the Oscar-winning “The Secret in Their Eyes” and the twisty con-tale “Nine Queens,” Darin plays Father Julian, a devoted man of the cloth working to fight the drugs and crime that run rampant in the Buenos Aires streets so many call home. He is referred to at one point as “the slum priest”—a better title than “White Elephant,” perhaps?—and it is his job to bring new priest Nicolas (played by Dardenne Brothers’ favorite Jeremie Renier) up to speed. (The “white elephant,” incidentally, is an abandoned, never-completed hospital now filled with squatters.)
Julian and Nicolas are joined in their efforts “to fight violence with love” by a caring social worker, Luciana (played wonderfully by Martina Gusman, who co-starred with Darin in Trapero’s “Carancho”). Throughout, while we’re involved with the characters and their individual journeys, the overall story and motivations are often fuzzy and hard to follow; when a romance develops between Nicolas and Luciana, it seems not just sudden, but utterly unsupported. And its lack of consequence is not just odd—it’s downright unrealistic.
The acting is top-notch across the board, with Darin and Rennier doing some of their finest work, and Gusman a clear star in the making. The film’s other most notable triumph is its music from composer-pianist Michael Nyman. While Nyman’s work here lacks the inimitable majesty of his soundtrack to Jane Campion’s “The Piano,” the music brings a suitable air of grace to the harsh setting of 'Elephant.' Its somber yet soaring sound is a surprising but welcome accompaniment to the action, especially upon Julian’s arrival to a grieving Nicolas. It is undoubtedly one of the most memorable scores I’ve heard in months, yet it is used too infrequently, and, it must be said, often feels too epic for what’s onscreen. The emotion of the moment is occasionally dwarfed by the emotion of the soundtrack.
Upon final analysis, it is difficult to tell whether we are meant to feel emboldened by the small, baby-step achievements we see onscreen, or saddened over the big-picture disappointments. (“It’s easy to be a martyr,” Julian tells Nicolas. “To be a hero, too. The hardest thing is working day after day knowing your work is meaningless.”) I hate to come down too hard on “White Elephant,” since it gets so much right. While it never fully transcends the feeling of I’ve-seen-this-tale-before, it is certainly a worthy, mostly realistic journey. It marks Trapero yet again as a filmmaker to watch, and Darin, especially, as a performer who gets better each time he’s on screen. It never breaks the shackles of predictability, but even with its missteps, “White Elephant” deserves an international audience. [B-]