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Latin American biz raises global film stakes

Bigger budgets boost movie projects

BUENOS AIRES — Many Latin American filmmakers are raising their game with higher budgets and bigger ambitions driving new films and cinematic ventures.

In Argentina, Vanessa Ragone’s Haddock is co-producing Viggo Mortensen starrer “Everybody Has a Plan,” while Mexico’s Canana is developing its biggest project ever, the $10 million-$12 million Cesar Chavez biopic “Chavez,” directed by Diego Luna and co-produced by John Malkovich through his L.A.-based Mr. Mudd shingle.

In October, “Elite Squad” director Jose Padilha announced that his Zazen label would invest $60 million in Brazilian pic production.

Argentina’s Pablo Trapero is another illustration of the ambitions of Latin American filmmakers.

The helmer is already a Cannes’ favorite — “Lion’s Den” played in Competition while Un Certain Regard unspooled “Carancho.”

Now Trapero is helming his biggest film yet, the $4 million “White Elephant.” Spain’s Morena Films, Trapero’s Matanza Cine and Disney-backed Patagonik are producing; France’s Full House co-produces.

“Elephant” is a challenge, Trapero says, with “more shoot weeks, situations, sets, cast, character choreography and constant interplay between character and context.”

Bigger budgets are a natural next step for Latin American directors but market factors also play a part.

As international markets toughen, foreign distributors are still demanding large films — but delivered on far more reasonable budgets.

One solution is to twin European finance with Latin American talent and low Latin American costs.

“Our idea was to provide Trapero with larger means to make a more ambitious film in scale and scope,” says Morena producer Juan Gordon.

The budget for “Elephant” triples that of Trapero’s previous works, but is still highly economical by U.S. or Western European standards.

“Elephant,” which began production Nov. 21, toplines Argentina’s biggest marquee draw, Ricardo Darin (“The Secret in Their Eyes,” “Carancho”) as Julian, an Argentine parish priest.

It’s mostly set in a Buenos Aires slum plagued by delinquency, corruption and two warring drug cartels, where Julian brings a close friend, fellow French priest Geronimo (Jeremie Renier, “L’Enfant,” “In Bruges”), who has himself just survived a mass killing by Central American paramilitaries.

Lensed in Ciudad Oculta, a shanty barrio dominated by the 14-story, concrete hulk of a never-finished hospital (which provides the film’s title), “Elephant” turns on themes of obedience to church hierarchy and social justice.

Trapero’s first feature to shoot major scenes outside Argentina, “Elephant” mixes jungle action, large crowd scenes, shoot-outs in the barrio and a love story — Geronimo falls for a social worker played by another big name, Martina Gusman (“Leonera,” “Carancho”).

Pic is written by Trapero and regular co-scribes Santiago Mitre, Martin Mauregui and Alejandro Fadel.

Trapero hopes to finish “Elephant” by May. It will certainly be one of the bigger Argentine films coming on to the market next year, which in itself is an excellent marketing hook.

“What’s beautiful about cinema is the next challenge,” Trapero says.