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White Elephant

Doing Good Against Impossible Odds

Apr. 9, 2013
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In White Elephant, Villa Virgen is an enormous cinderblock, scrap metal and packing board slum in Buenos Aires. Living there are 30,000 souls, squatters whose meager social services are provided by a young social worker, Luciana, and a pair of “slum priests,” Father Julián and Father Nicolás. Nicolás has already witnessed terrible things. He barely escaped death in the Amazon rainforest when a right-wing death squad massacred the villagers in the remote town where he was assigned, but even that experience cannot entirely prepare him for the scale of misery in Villa Virgen.

Directed by Argentina’s Pablo Trapero, White Elephant effectively dramatizes shantytown life, especially the often-dispiriting toil of idealists trying to change conditions against indifference and opposition. The acting is superbly in key with the film’s desperate realism. Life and death are packed tightly together in Villa Virgen, turf wars between rival drug gangs turn deadly and violence breeds reprisal in a place where hope is doled out in smaller rations than the portions at Father Julián’s soup kitchen.

Julián and Nicolás enjoy a precarious respect from all sides, but their Roman Catholic bishop isn’t fully responsive to the poor, the police descend upon the slum in SWAT team raids and the gangs continue clawing out profit from the wreckage of human life. Fighting violence with love is the hardest mission, and White Elephant shows the fatigue of doing good against impossible odds—without melodramatic gestures or bad Hollywood music telling us how to feel.

White Elephant screens at 7 p.m. on Sunday, April 14, as part of the 35th Annual Latin American Film Series, which runs April 12-19 at the UW-Milwaukee Union Theatre. Admission to all films is free. For more information, visit uwm.edu/clacs/filmseries/.


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