The lensing is flawless in "White Elephant," but the same can't be said for the script, which tries to keep too many thematic balls in the air without privileging any one.

The lensing is flawless in “White Elephant,” a superbly shot story about two priests working in one of Buenos Aires’ most dangerous slums. The same can’t be said for the script, which tries to keep too many thematic balls in the air without privileging any one. Pablo Trapero (“Carancho,” “Lion’s Den”) is thinking big here, and he’s certainly got the scope, especially in constructing visuals, yet his sense of balance is off and the finale’s illogic doesn’t sit well. Despite these flaws, the pic will play well in all three home countries, with strong international sales likely.

An Ad Vitam (in France) release of a Morena Films, Matanza Cine, Patagonik, Full House, Arte France Cinema production, with the participation of TVE, Canal Plus Espana, Canal Plus France, Cine Plus, Arte France, in association with Wild Bunch, Soficinema 8, with the support of ICAA, INCAA. (International sales: Wild Bunch, Paris.) Produced by Juan Gordon, Pablo Trapero, Juan Pablo Galli, Juan Vera, Alejandro Cacetta.

The sense of surprise from the opening sequences is especially promising: An extreme, harshly lit closeup of Father Julian (Ricardo Darin) having a CAT scan is immediately followed by a harrowing night scene of Father Nicolas (Jeremie Renier) hiding in the jungle while paramilitary forces hunt him down and massacre the villagers. Soon after, the two priests are on a boat along the Amazon, the stilled waters acting like a stunning mirror of the cloudy sky above.

Julian brings Nicolas to Buenos Aires and his mission among the slum dwellers, clearly grooming the younger Belgian priest to take over should his illness (probably already forgotten by most viewers by this point) finish him off. The neighborhood is dominated by a massive structure nicknamed the “White Elephant,” a crumbling behemoth that began as a hospital but remains unfinished thanks to the country’s succession of coups d’etat. The metaphor of a white elephant is extended to a still-in-progress housing project as well as to Julian himself, an old-school liberal priest who successfully balances religious conviction with social conscience.

While Nicolas’ clerical calling and commitment to the poor aren’t called into question, he’s more likely to compromise the former if it furthers the latter. He also gets into a forbidden (and cliched) sexual relationship with local social worker Luciana (Trapero’s muse, Martina Gusman). They’re all working toward the same goal: to minister socially and spiritually to the slum residents, many of whom are involved in the drug trade and caught up in deadly territorial conflicts. Nicolas throws himself into his work with a brave yet foolhardy energy that has martyr-like undertones.

Meanwhile, corruption and a general lack of concern by city government and church bigwigs has halted construction on the housing project. Julian struggles with the red tape along with Nicolas’ rogue behavior and his own life-threatening illness, investigating a miracle claimed by a woman who prayed to Father Carlos Mujica (a Liberation theology priest killed in 1974) in the hope of finding his own miracle.

Gang wars, miracles, broken vows, municipal corruption, a brain tumor: It’s a lot to take in at one time. There’s surely a way to foreground one of these issues while using the rest as less-developed backstory, but the script doesn’t see its way clearly in that department. However, what the film lacks in narrative synthesis it makes up in atmosphere, and Trapero surpasses himself in capturing milieu. From the diluvial rains that drench the slums inside and out to the ominous alleyways whose Dante-esque vision acts as a chilling comment on the lost and forgotten souls within, “White Elephant” is an impressive confirmation of the helmer’s ability to fill his scenes with style and mood.

Darin’s increasingly international fanbase won’t be disappointed by his perf, and Gusman as always has an affecting way of melding outer toughness with inner vulnerability. Renier continues his track record of interesting choices and acquits himself with ease in his first Spanish role.

The real standout is Guillermo Nieto’s lensing, particularly the traveling shots, which include a frightening night skirmish and a masterfully crafted police raid whose sustained fluidity, without edits, deserves kudos all around. The same can’t always be said for the uses of Michael Nyman’s score: A slowly building orchestration preceding the title credit, with occasional dissonant notes, is a majestic lead-up to what’s to come, but its repetition near the weak ending feels merely overblown.

White Elephant

Spain-Argentina-France

Production

Directed by Pablo Trapero. Screenplay, Alejandro Fadel, Martin Mauregui, Santiago Mitre, Trapero.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Guillermo Nieto; editors, Trapero, Nacho Ruiz Capillas; music, Michael Nyman; production designer, Juan Pedro de Gaspar; art director, Fernando Brun; costume designer, Marisa Urruti; sound (Dolby Digital), Carlos Lidon; special effects, Federico Cueva; casting, Mariana Mitre. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard), May 21, 2012. Running time: 104 MIN.

With

Ricardo Darin, Jeremie Renier, Martina Gusman, Federico Barga, Walter Jakob, Mauricio Minetti, Raul Ramos, Pablo Gatti, Jose Gomez. (Spanish dialogue)

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