Film Review: White Elephant

Right here in the prologue, let me give you my verdict:

This is a film you should track down and watch.

Especially if you are one of the very many Christians who read this blog: please, track down this movie, put your phone away, close over the laptop, draw the curtains, exile distraction and watch this film.

In the rest of what follows, spoilers (if such a term applies) will be shared so come back to read this after watching the film, if you’re the kind of person who thinks movies are ruined by being able to tell what comes next.
In our age, films involving priests as primary characters are rarely satisfying. They are sometimes very good but they usually involve two key character dynamics and one major over-riding point. The character tensions are: how hard it is for a principled individual to work under a hierarchy and how impossible it is to commit to celibacy. The major over-riding point of films involving priests tends to be anti-clerical. Priests are bad and worse, priesthood itself is bad.

In White Elephant you have the character tensions but you do not have the major over-riding point. This places it in a rare group of movies which includes the greatest film I’ve ever seen about vocation, Of Gods And Men, and the recently over-looked Malick movie, To The Wonder. White Elephant tells the story of two dear friends who happen to be priests. The older friend has brought the younger friend, recovering from injuries sustained in a largely undiscussed massacre in the Amazon where a colleague was martyred, to work with him in a massive Argentinian slum, based around the carcass of an unfinished, half constructed super hospital.

The film depicts three communities, interwoven together, overlapping and inter-penetrating. At the heart of the film is the community of priests, centred around Fr. Julian. It includes a volunteer named Cruz who teaches the boys of the favela practical skills, and a driven, compassionate social worker, Luciana, who is played brilliantly by Martina Gusman. These are people of faith* who are possessed by a missional purpose. They want to see the young people of the slum rise out of it. They want to see the dignity of the older people in the slum restored. They want to be enemies of no one. They pray together and they eat together. This is a rare, unflinching look at Christian ministry in community.

The second community the film records is the slum itself, the district of Villa Virgin. The depiction of the city is neither tuned to evoke a sentimental response nor used as a menacing piece of exotica. It is what it is – the result of human beings living close together. There are good things and bad things quite independent of the horrendous decay.

We might called the third community the “Enemies”, although the point of Fr. Julian and Fr. Nicholas’ work is that the people we want to blame must instead be embraced. So the State in the form of an obstructionist city council and a brutal police force are included in this number, as are the two rival drug gangs that vie for control of the district. The plot of the film is nothing more than the interaction of the three main character, Fr. Julian, Fr. Nichols and Luciana, with the different communities that make up Villa Virgin.

* The notes on the film from the Cannes Festival last year describe Luciana as an atheist. Unless I passed out at some point, this is never suggested in the film. In fact, prominently placed above her desk in her office is an image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. One might speculate that this shines light on what faith means in a secular age. Many jump to a conclusion that because a character doesn’t appear in scenes where “devotion” occurs, we imagine that they must be irreligious. The underlying idea revealed in this assumption is that religious faith is a gloss that sits on top of a more primal, universally shared idea of what it means to be a human. Unless I missed some explicit signal somewhere, the reviewers** who have come to this “Luciana is atheist” conclusion are reading stuff into the film that isn’t actually there in a way that allows us to read out of their reviews a lot about the hidden assumptions of our age.

** One could further speculate that the critical dullness elicited by To The Wonder is also at work in responses to White Elephant. An idea of faith as a set of outmoded metaphysical commitments that some people have and that might possibly be of social benefit in some settings can be found again and again (good example here). This is a serious journalistic deficit. Imagine how crippled a film reviewer would be if they believed politics was nothing more than elections?

The film does fall into the trap of nodding towards the hierarchical structure of the Catholic church as an obstacle to the ministry being carried out. However, this nod is restrained. Fr. Julian and his team seek to work under the authority of their bishop. This is at times frustrating. The depiction of hierarchy is still negative, but it is viewed realistically.

The film also falls into the trap of depicting celibacy as almost impossible. This is a pity. But the way that it is done is wonderful, if just taken for what it is. Fr. Nicholas doesn’t fall out of celibacy because celibacy is a horrendous burden, but because friendship is desirable. The sex scene and subsequent relationship scenes that ensue are actually profoundly touching because what is communicated is the hunger for the other, not in some tacky counterfeit idea of a physical urge that can’t be resisted but in the sense of an attraction to the beauty of the other self. Falling out of celibacy is not a torturous existential crisis so much as a thing that happens because he loves his friend and desires her and she him. It is not a deficit in the path he is walking but a surplus in her beauty that possesses him. The falling out of celibacy creates internal contradictions but it doesn’t destroy his vocation.

The reason why I want my Christian friends to watch this film is threefold. Firstly, it is a very good, gripping, thought provoking drama. It is superbly acted, it is restrained, it is interesting. These are rare and good things.

Secondly, the film is an informed attempt to show us what it means to do Kingdom of God work embedded in a community. The protagonists are embedded in their community of faith but they live and dress and speak like the community that makes up the favela. Christians mis-use the word incarnational when they are describing this kind of work. What White Elephant offers us is a depiction of what this kind of community based ministry should look like. It is representational, not incarnational. Worship and mission and social justice work are not segmented. It is integrated. This film manages to do all this without being in any way propagandistic.

Thirdly, the film shows us what our right stance should be towards politics, power and the State. We do not resist the State, any more than we seek to resist the drug dealers. We neither want the State overturned nor see that as our job, regardless of how unjust it is. Equally, we neither want the drug dealers extinguished nor see that as our job, in spite of the damage they inflict. Rather we witness to the State that we are citizens of a different Kingdom. The Argentine flag is a recurring motif in the film. Everyone except Fr. Nicholas is Argentinian and his Belgian origin is much discussed because to be foreign is to be strange. But the Christians in this film demonstrate in their words and their deeds that they are holding the State we call Argentina to account by the standards of the in-breaking Kingdom of God, which is their true home and the entity to which they owe allegiance. If that higher allegiance means they must shelter those that the law of the land deem criminal, then so be it. If that higher allegiance means that they must seek to restrain violence against the State even when they wish they could lash out, then so be it. If that higher allegiance calls them to martyrdom, then so be it.

Final point: The soundtrack kicks in with some stirring stuff at important moments.

Your Correspondent, A cool name for his dog would be “Bark Obama”