"White Elephant' (unrated)

The title of Pablo Trapero’s film refers to an enormous hospital that was intended to be the largest medical facility in South America but was abandoned by its developer midway through construction. Today, the structure has become a haven to hundreds of homeless families in a crime-ridden slum in Buenos Aires, where two priests (Ricardo Darín and Jeremie Renier) dedicate their lives to keeping abandoned children from falling into the drug trade and soliciting financial aid from the government.

The concept is promising, but there’s something missing in The White Elephant, a sense of urgency and danger, that keeps the movie from working like it should. The obvious comparison is City of God, Fernando Meirelles’ astonishing drama about the slums of Rio de Janeiro as a breeding ground for young criminals. But where that movie thrummed with danger and excitement, The White Elephant is curiously dull, polemic when it should be heartbreaking. A subplot involving an atheist social worker (Martina Gusman) working with priests follows a path so clichéd, you can’t believe it made the final cut.

Despite typically great work from Darín, a lot of The White Elephant feels false — a riot in which police invade the slum is clumsily staged — and a priest’s secret edges into telenovela territory. The White Elephant finally jolts to life in its closing, horrifying moments, and you understand what Trapero was trying to get at with this misshapen movie But by then it’s too little, too late.

Cast: : Ricardo Darín, Jeremie Renier, Martina Gusman.

Director: Pablo Trapero.

Screenwriters: Alejandro Fadel, Martin Mauregui, Santiago Mitre, Pablo Trapero.

A Strand Releasing release. Running time: 111 minutes. In Spanish with English subtitles. Vulgar language, brief violence, gore, sexual situations, drug use, adult themes. Opens Friday March 29 in Miami-Dade only: Coral Gables Art Cinema.