Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Culture Alert: "Elefante Blanco"

You probably think that if we are talking about a movie about Catholic priests right now, we should be talking about For Greater Glory, the big budget film with the superstar cast about the Cristero War in Mexico and the brutal persecution of Catholics by President Plutarco Elias Calles and the martyrdom of priests in the 1920s.

Nope. That film, which has been touted in all the major Catholic media for weeks, has already gotten enough publicity. American bishops from coast to coast are plugging it in conjunction with their campaign to avoid having to provide contraceptive coverage to employees working for major Catholic institutions, to avoid recognizing the civil rights of gay individuals to marry and receive the same benefits as heterosexual couples -- all of the issues that they are lumping under the rubric of "religious freedom" and exalting the film for demonstrating the importance of fighting for that "freedom". Religious freedom was a real issue in Mexico in the 1920s; it is hardly the same in the United States in 2012. Even the film's stars have contributed to the spin, with Eduardo Verastegui, the hunky Latino actor who plays Catholic martyr Anacleto Gonzalez Flores, opining to Catholic News Service that "I don't see any difference between Plutarco Elias Calles and President Obama or Henry VIII" (seriously??).

The film we want to plug here is Elefante Blanco, a much lower budget flick by Argentinian director Pablo Trapero. The film follows the story of two priests, Father Julian (Ricardo Darín) and Father Nicolas (Jérémie Renier), who are working in the shantytown that has come up around an abandoned hospital construction project (the "white elephant") on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. They are joined by an atheist social worker (Martina Gusman) who also provides a bit of a love interest for the younger priest, Fr. Nicolas.

Trapero drew his inspiration for this film from the life of the Tercermundialista priest, Fr. Carlos Mugica, to whom he dedicated the project, who was committed to the poor and assassinated in 1974 by Alianza Anticomunista Argentina, a right-wing death squad. In an interview with, Trapero says: "We talk about what was known as the "Movimiento de Sacerdotes para el Tercer Mundo" ["Movement of Priests for the Third World"]. And how that changed over the years, in Argentina, into what we know today as the "curas villeros" ["shantytown priests"]. Father Mugica is an inevitable reference point in the struggle and the commitment of the priests in the shantytowns. So it was very hard to build a fictional story about the reality of those priests without mentioning Mugica's case. But we see that there is a much larger working group, lots of people involved in this work daily without being priests, such as social workers, NGOs, etc..."

Elefante Blanco touches on many themes: how the government and the institutional church are caring for -- or neglecting, as the case may be -- the poor, what is the appropriate role for a priest, how much can one work with gangs and drug traffickers in situations like this, and, finally, what it means to give one's life out of love. This is the preferential option for the poor at its grittiest level.

Elefante Blanco was well-received at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival this week. It has also received substantial critical acclaim in Argentina, where it premiered on May 17th. We can't wait until it comes to the United States.

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