Friday, April 5, 2013

Dope Island: Dope Island welcomes the new Pope

The recent, epochal retirement of one Pope and the sudden election of another must certainly be regarded as a missed opportunity by some, especially in the reality-TV field. No Vatican Idol audition shows? Maybe something more along the lines of Survivor - Bishop Island. How about Keeping Up With the Cardinal-ashians?

Also, the surprise Pope sort of parallels the plot of the movie ANGELS & DEMONS in some key ways - but after suffering through the original Dan Brown novel I just wasn’t in the mood to see if even Ron Howard could have saved that one. So let us leave behind the cheap shots and give a warm Dope Island welcome to an Argentinian Pope Francis, as fresh as an Easter egg. Will he be the one who turns around the image of a Catholic faith? A tradition so marginalized now that just about the only place a pilgrim finds Catholic priests favorably depicted anymore are third-rate horror movies about exorcism?

Well, oddly enough, a feature drama was released recently (and is now transubstantiated to home-video) that does go into the details of Catholicism, Argentina-style, at least to a limited extent. Whether it should have bearing or not on Pope Francis is in the eye of the beholder...but at least it's not Donald Trump in Italy lording it over a bunch of Jesuit or Franciscan hopefuls saying, "You’re fired!" until the papacy goes to a triumvirate of Gary Busey, George Takei and Omarosa.

The picture is a 2012 Argentine import called WHITE ELEPHANT. The title of filmmaker Pablo Trapero's drama refers to a large, unfinished hospital project, dating back to the Peron era, that borders a big-city slum. The rambling, bare-concrete hulk has become the headquarters of a crusading "slum priest," Father Julian (Ricardo Darin), who ministers to the city's worst barrio. When Father Julian learns he is terminally ill, he recruits a possible successor, Father Nicholas (Jeremie Renier), a transplant from Belgium.

Thanks to a prologue, we know that Father Nicholas was left traumatized and self-doubting after being one of the only survivors of a massacre of his earlier village parish by government death squads (don't ask me quite how that works out in South American politics, timeline-wise; I always thought the Argentine death squads were a phenomenon of 30 to 40 years ago). Nonetheless, he tries to rise to the occasion as Julian's protege. The two renegade priests mediate turf wars between drug dealers and try to shield at-risk youth from murder by the brutal city police.

None of which is very enthusiastically supported by either the vengeance-crazed drug gangs, the brutal police - or, most especially, the powerful Catholic hierarchy. Though they pay feeble lip service to Julian's selfless activism, the Argentinian Catholic high muckety-mucks are focused in putting up on a pedestal another, more politically safe hero-of-the-people priest, who was conveniently slain back in the 1970s and no longer an active troublemaker. They want the dead cleric entered into the process for Vatican-approved sainthood. Thus buying Argentina's church some valuable PR. That’s a pretty interesting detail, concerning what’s gone down recently, no?

This is less a spiritual drama than a social one; the viewer is not particularly surprised when matinee-idol handsome Father Nicholas, not particularly celibate, has a steamy topless sex scene with the resident social-worker/activist, who looks about as good as your average Brazilian swimsuit model. Still, give WHITE ELEPHANT its due, that there is a palpable sense of an environment where unsparing violence can break out at any moment. The movie's grasp of tragedy and entrenched injustice mostly overcomes the melodramatics and telenovela contrivance.

And, as I say, its presence among us this Easter, with an Argentine newly ordained as pope, is, I dunno, like a Sign? Maybe at least one that assures the faithful that there are more things out there to watch than THE TEN COMMANDMENTS rerun again on TV. So maybe put this movie in your Easter Egg basket/Netflix queue, or whatever.

And remember, that even today there are those who go forth and suffer excruciating agonies and degradation at the hands of the minions of Satan, so that you sinners don’t have to. They are called, of course, movie critics.  

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