The Pope’s Toilet (El Bano Del Papa)
directed by Cesar Charlone and Enrique Fernanndez
starring Cesar Troncoso, Mario Silva, Nelson Lence, Virginia Mendez
-wl Film Movement
It’s 1988, and Pope John Paul II visits Melo, Uruguay, a local capital and about as poverty stricken as any place in South America. A trade dispute rages with Brazil so money can be made by smuggling batteries and maté into Uruguay by bicycle. The border is porous so Beto (Cesar Troncoso) and his buddy Valvulina (Silva) can use a cow pasture if they think the border guards will be troublesome. Of course, everyone takes a cut of this small pie, most notably Meleyo (Lence), head jerk of the Mobile Border Patrol. No one likes him, so when Beto does a deal, he keeps his mouth shut if only to keep peace at home.
With the Pope coming to town, everyone lines up to make money selling chorizo and empanadas and soda pop — after all, won’t 50 or 100 or 250 thousand hungry Brazilians come to see His Grace? Beto thinks outside the box and produces a brilliant idea — he’s building a public restroom to serve the masses after they eat all that local food. He’s cleverer than most, and when the visit is a bust, he at least ends up with a nice improvement to his decrepit outhouse.
The Pope’s Toilet proceeds along at the pace of village life. Beto struggles to make ends meet and keep his dedicated wife Carmen (Mendez) in baloney and his daughter Silvia (Virginia Ruiz) in school, and we spend most of the film watching Beto bicycle down dirt roads with mysterious boxes strapped to his back. The feeling is that this is cocaine or heroin, but in reality it’s bubble gum and tea bags. The acting is believable with everyone looking like they’re starring in a Dogme 95 documentary. Archival footage of the Pope coupled with some nice recreations authenticates the feeling of time and place. As to the subtext, it’s an amalgamation of belief in the divine power of a single man, and the reality that while the Pope may speak of helping the poor, they are pretty much on their own. Christ’s words ring true: “The poor are always with you, and don’t think you’ll ever do more than help them through today.” The mix of cynicism and hope are hallmarks of modern religion — salvation might be for the sinner, but unless you’re on the steering committee, a mule and 10 acres is blessing enough.
Without the attention of Charlon and Fernandez you might never give Uruguay a thought, but it’s lurking down there, and full of people who want what you and I want — a stable income and the chance for a stable home and family. Beto’s daughter Silvia summarizes the dream, she wants a job in the trendy Uruguayan broadcast industry, and if she’s lucky and sexy, she might make it to Telemundo or onto a hot telenovela. Look down if you will, but that’s equivalent to the jump from burning peat to using electricity. You take your progress where you can.
Film Movement: www.filmmovement.com