Pablo Trapero came to notice as part of the Argentine new wave that also included Lucrecia Martel (“The Headless Woman”) and Lisandro Alonso (“Liverpool”). Writing in the New York Times in 2005, Larry Rohter argued that the loosely-knit group of directors shared no stylistic vision but rather a tendency toward personal stories that resulted in an equal aversion to politics. Such a sweeping statement never held entirely, but it does help outline the recent changes in Trapero’s work, which, with an increase in budget and visibility, have also broadened in scope, leading to two recent films, “Carancho” and “White Elephant” (the latter out in theaters on Friday ahead of its April 2 DVD release), that explicitly and forcefully act as pieces of social criticism.
The changes in Trapero’s recent work are not new developments but products of emphasis. Trapero has, throughout his career, profiled characters often incapable of understanding and certainly incapable of controlling the political forces at play behind their lives. Whether set in the beleaguered southern provinces of Argentina, in a women’s prison, or in one of Buenos Aires’ worst slums, Trapero’s characters always seem to start at rock bottom with hopes of building to better things. But Trapero has never had faith in their prospects for fulfilling those hopes, and in his latest films he has only grown more focused on revealing the corruption in Argentine society that keeps his characters from doing so.
In that sense, even as Trapero’s films have grown in ambition they have painted a consistent, if bleak, picture of Argentina. His earlier films featured more muted political arguments, but in the background always lay a country divided between the wealth of its capitol and the meager resources of its outer provinces, beset by too many incompetent institutions and too many people with thoughts only of “what’s in it for me.” In “Carancho” and “White Elephant,” the two main characters insist that luck or faith will come to their rescue as they attempt to stabilize their increasingly turbulent lives. Trapero has gotten more explicit over the years, but his films have always offered a lesson on how equally indispensable and credulous these terms and others like them can become when situations so out of your control seem so entrenched against you at the same time.
“Crane World” (1999)
Trapero’s lo-fi debut contains a comic element missing from his later work, mostly because Luis Margani brings such levity to his performance as Rulo, a lovably inept construction worker who stumbles through an unjust world with a naïve shrug of the shoulder. As Rulo moves from job to job, there’s no shortage of workers getting screwed out of wages, food, and self-respect. But in this case, if not in Trapero’s later work, the prevailing sentiment is bittersweet rather than tragic.
“El Bonaerense” (2002)
The young police officer in training (Jorge Román) in “El Bonaerense” is perhaps as oblivious (or indifferent) to the injustice around him as Rulo, but watching him get slowly engulfed in it comes with none of the humor in “Crane World.” Zapa is no bumbling fool like Rulo; he’s a manipulated and eventually manipulative 32-year-old who joins the provincial police in Buenos Aires through a family connection. Trapero’s tactful pans and tracking shots — which, in their subtle but deliberate revelation of detail, are his best asset — expose the incompetence, corruption, and casual violence all around Zapa in a way that disarms but never bludgeons the viewer.
“Rolling Family” (2004)
An entertaining but slight film, “Rolling Family” is also Trapero’s worst. The story tracks almost a dozen family members as they take a cross-country trip to the northern province of Misiones for a wedding. Trapero’s ability to dig deep into one or two characters and develop a vision of their world through their experience gets lost here as he tries less successfully to intertwine various family plots — kissing cousins, cheating husbands, and all.
“Born and Bred” (2006)
“Born and Bred” begins with a devastating car crash in which Santiago (a brilliant
Guillermo Pfening) appears to lose his wife and young daughter. But with time the details of the crash grow ambiguous and so does the reason for Santiago’s subsequent retreat to a remote village in southern Argentina. Trapero gorgeously uses the bleak Patagonian landscape to underscore Santiago’s precarious mental state and slowly turns “Born and Bred” from a movie about a man running away in mourning to a man fleeing from responsibility and a life that suddenly feels unbearably insecure.
“Lion’s Den” (2008)
In “Lion’s Den,” Trapero shifts away from characters for whom resignation often seems like the only available option. The movie follows Julia (Martina Gusmán) as she fights first against a murder charge for the death of her boyfriend, and then for custody of her son. Like in “Born and Bred,” Trapero keeps the truth about Julia’s supposed crime ambiguous, reinforcing how her fate is less a matter of justice than of whether the right people choose to help her. None of which makes for a more optimistic worldview: by the end, refusing to resign herself to what others will make of her life, Julia’s left with little option but escape.
Trapero’s first foray into a more expansive political vision is also the tipping point in his slow shift in tone from quiet, personal stories to tense thrillers. The story of Sosa (Ricardo Darín), an ambulance chaser trying to flee a life of crime after meeting the paramedic Lujan (Gusmán), slowly reveals the layers of corruption — from the doctors to the police — that pile up between them and their exit. When Lujan first meets Sosa working endless night shifts, she tells him she’s holding out for something better, but the film’s truer statement comes from Sosa later on: “It was a simple thing. It was supposed to go right but it went wrong.”
“White Elephant” (2012)
Suffering slightly from the same overextension as “Rolling Family,” “White Elephant” nevertheless continues on the path set by “Carancho.” Set in a Buenos Aires slum, the white elephant in the title refers to an abandoned construction project that Father Julián (Darín) is determined to turn into a housing project. Portraying everything from the slum’s drug dealers to the mistreatment of construction workers to the inaction in the higher rungs of the Argentine Church and municipal government, “White Elephant” is Trapero’s richest example of an increasingly David Simon-like attempt to capture entire
social webs, and particularly the degeneration and dysfunction of institutions within them, in one film.