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Slum priests

by
26 April 2013

Stephen Brown sees two new films on current release, and a classic one

Hands-on ministry: a dramatic moment in the filmWhite Elephant(Axiom Films)

Hands-on ministry: a dramatic moment in the filmWhite Elephant(Axiom Films)

A NEW film - White Elephant (Cert. 15) - set in Buenos Aires, about dedicated Roman Catholic priests (and their bishop) ministering in the slums, seems prescient. The director, Pablo Trapero, and the first Argentinian pope have comparable social agendas.

Ever since Trapero's impressive first feature, Crane World, he has homed in on the disturbing consequences of corruption at all layers of society. The title refers to a hospital project abandoned by the authorities in a shanty town not even mentioned on maps. Gangs employing a regime of violence and drug-dealing rule the roost.

White Elephant centres on Fr Julián (Ricardo Darín, best known for The Secret in Their Eyes) and his new Belgian assistant, Fr Nicolás (Jérémie Renier). Both have problems. The younger priest is tortured by guilt, being sole survivor of an Amazonian village massacre. Julián assures him that dying for these people would have been easier than living for them - something that he himself is beginning to feel, because of his own health issues.

As he undergoes a brain scan, we note his preferential access to medical facilities. He and Nicolás are from affluent backgrounds. As Luciana (Martina Gusman), the social worker, says, "So you can both afford to be poor." The film intends this not as a slur but a rallying cry for the privileged to work among and for the deprived.

Despite tactful handling of warring factions, the church project forever runs the risk of being seen as taking sides. Their bishop is sympathetic but over-cautious, and we suspect that he is withholding resources necessary for completion of a social-housing project. This positing of the institutional Church as at odds with those nearer the ground comes across a little too pat.

Similarly, the contrast between the long-suffering Julián and the impulsive Nicolás descends at times into stereotypes. But Trapero does pull off something very difficult in cinema. He realises on screen Charles Péguy's aphorism (never quoted): "Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics." The clergy here, against all odds, faithfully ponder the mystery of the cross, daily wrestling with how to live that out. The film ranks with Of Gods and Men as a stunning portrait of Christian faith.
 

I AM not a great fan of the director Gus Van Sant. Good Will Hunting (1997), followed by his shot-by-shot remake of Psycho (1998), did for me. My Own Private Idaho (1991) is excellent. But I am uneasy about his attempt to make the feel-good, social-conscience film Promised Land, now on release (Cert. 15).

To frack (a controversial technique for extracting gas and oil from shale) or not to frack: that is the question put to a poor farming community in McKinley, Pennsylvania. On the one hand, there are Matt Damon and Frances McDormand from Global Crosspower Solutions, paving the way for a deal that offers these no-hopers a land flowing with milk and honey. On the other, there is Hal Holbrook as a retired academic, Frank Yates, and John Krasinski, as an environmental campaigner, Dustin Noble, who urges townspeople to vote against picking up this seductive windfall.

It is clever inasmuch as big, attractive Hollywood players represent the money and the power, leaving lesser-known cast members to be the humble opposition. I leave you to guess the outcome; but, as an assault on Frank Capra's populist heritage (Meet John Doe, It's A Wonderful Life, etc.), it fails. Promised Land, when it works, operates better as a corporate thriller, and its biblical overtones add fresh dimensions to the genre.

Damon and McDormand (assisted by God's-eye camerawork) represent a subverted Moses and Aaron. The invitation to lead these people out of economic misery seems reasonable enough. What the ordinary people need to realise is that they are already living in a land full of promise, which, but for the manipulations of big business, has effectively enslaved them. The task, therefore, is to regain control of their own destinies. This simplistic antidote insults our intelligence.

Damon's Steve Butler is nice, not good. Divine displeasure is ultimately expressed in the form of a Cecil B. DeMille downpour, after which sentimentality resolves all dramatic issues. A different Moses descends to the plain, reminding himself and everyone else what the Lord requires of them.
 

FOUR years after The Gospel According to Matthew (1964), the Marxist existentialist director Pier Paolo Pasolini presented us with a modern-day Christ. Theorem (Cert. 15) is doing the rounds again, and has scrubbed up well.

The first of many shots of volcanic wasteland accompanies a recitation of Exodus 13.18: "God led the people about through the way of the wilderness." We are then treated to a sepia-toned montage of a factory owner and his family mouth- ing conversations that we never hear. When "The Visitor" (Terence Stamp) - we never learn his name - mysteriously descends on this Milanese bourgeois household, the film bursts into colour, and people's voices are heard. Their drab lives are transformed by this stranger, who disturbs the comfortable and comforts the disturbed. In turn, the maid, wife, husband, son, and daughter are attracted to this character and changed by him.

Stamp disappears a third of the way through the film. Mozart's Requiem plays as we are left with people mourning their loss. They acknowledge that they have been changed, but, while their experience of this visitor leads some to acts of great piety, it leaves others feeling abandoned. Liberation becomes confused with libertinism, the work of Tolstoy and Rimbaud being juxtaposed on screen.

Could it be that Pasolini, who regarded St Paul as holy, but also as responsible for institutionalising and falsifying Christianity, has constructed a parable of what went wrong after the Saviour's ascension? While the film is capable of a theological meaning, this does not exhaust Pasolini's lines of enquiry; and herein lies its ingenuity.

The film was made against the background of the 1968 student uprisings across the Western world, which the director castigated as posh kids' playing at revolution - a description that could fit the way these family members use their new-found freedoms. Given Pasolini's struggles with sexuality, others have read the film as affirming the resurrection of the body. There is certainly plenty of eroticism: when the International Catholic Film Office bestowed a special award at the Venice Film Festival, the Vatican withdrew it. But, whether Theorem is an allegory about faith, politics, sex, or all three, the opening quotation reminds us that it is God who first leads us into the wilderness. How we end up after being there is another matter.

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