March 28, 2009 -- “The Pope's Toilet” (El Baño del Papa) is a very bittersweet comedy, with the emphasis on bitter, about Pope John Paul II's visit to Melo, a small town in Uruguay in 1988. The pope's visit is seen by many townspeople as a way to get rich quick. Rumor has it that bus loads of people from Brazil, perhaps hundreds of thousands of them will come to Melo to hear the Pope speak. The townspeople set about getting ready for the wealthy tourists, preparing hundreds of pounds of chorizo in advance (one man jokes that there is not a stray dog or cat left in town). Others make gifts and mementos for the occasion. This 2007 film, being released as part of the film movement collection, was Uruguay's submission to the Academy Awards and its spoken language is Spanish, with English subtitles.
A small time, dirt-poor smuggler, Beto (played by César Troncoso) has a different idea of how to cash in on the Pope's visit. He will build a bathroom and charge the tourists to use it. He explains to his wife, Carmen (Virginia Méndez) how this fancy toilet will pay for a motorcycle (to help with his smuggling) fix the roof, and pay for their daughter Silvia's (Virginia Ruiz) education. Beto makes a marginal living by carrying liquor, food and other goods some 10 miles across the border from Brazil, avoiding the border crossings and patrols to avoid taxes. He carries goods on his sturdy bicycle, but watches enviously as smugglers with motorcycles leave him in their dust. The bane of the smuggler's existence are the border guards and the corrupt and mean mobile patrolman, Meleyo (Nelson Lence). Beto pedals furiously to raise enough money to pay for his fancy bathroom (technically, it is an outhouse) but he falls short. He must make a deal with the devil (Meleyo) in order to raise enough money to buy his toilet. By dealing with Meleyo, he can ride down the road, past the bribed border guards. He must keep his deal with Meleyo secret, however, or he will be an outcast among his friends and family.
As the day of the Pope's visit approaches, Beto starts looking at motorcycles. He imagines himself gliding down the road effortlessly. His fellow villagers have their own dreams of money as the big day approaches. It seems the whole town is setting out tables of things to sell. Signs are being painted, money jars are being readied. The film's funniest scene has Beto instructing his wife and daughter how to run the toilet operation. Patrons are to be charged for “half, or full service.” If a patron takes too long, they are to knock on the door and urge the customer to hurry up so the next customer can come in. A bucket of water provides the “flush” in between customers. Beto has it all planned.
As usually happens with the best-laid plans, a lot of things go wrong. I won't go into all that, but much of what happens is rather grim and not all that funny, depending on one's sense of humor. One thing you can say about it is that Beto remains optimistic about the future. He never stops coming up with his hair-brained money-making schemes. I have to believe that someday he will get that motorcycle. What happens to his daughter is more serious. She, alone in her family has really big dreams. She wants to be a presenter on television. She sees herself interviewing famous people. For better or worse, her fate is tied up with that of her family. She has her big dreams, her father has smaller ones and her mother tries to be the practical one. Whatever happens, the family soldiers on.
This film isn't really a comedy. It is more a slice of a life. It is an interesting portrait of an impoverished family that is struggling towards a better life. It is a snapshot of a time and place that will seem foreign to many people in the United States, but the struggles of this family will be familiar to many. The acting is solid by a combination of professional and amateur actors. The cinematography by co-director César Charlone (cinematographer of “The Constant Gardener”) is very good. This film rates a B.
Also on the same Film Movement DVD is an award-winning short film, “Video 3000” and a clever commercial for Stella Artois Beer (a sponsor of the Film Movement series) called “The Race.” “Video 3000” is a distinctive-looking animated short about a man who gets a new VCR which has unexpected capabilities. This DVD becomes available to the public April 14th, 2009, it is available to Film Movement subscribers earlier, and for a lower price. For more on the Film Movement series, check out the official Film Movement web site.
Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in video and/or DVD format, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.