In the opening shot of Directors Cesar Charlone and Enrique Fernandez’s Uruguayan movie “The Pope’s Toilet” (‘El bano del Papa’, 2007), we see the shadow of cyclists riding through a dirt terrain. The camera gradually moves upward to show the men pedaling speedily, only to see a man with a motorbike passing them efficiently. Of course, these cyclists aren’t pedaling for passion to achieve some renowned title. It is just need or a will to survive that’s driving them. Once the motorbike passes our protagonist Beto (Caesar Troncoso), there’s a feeling of stillness, although his cycle is traveling at some speed. He drinks some water and keeps pushing for the destination. Alas, a corrupt mobile border patrol guy named Meleyo catches the cyclists and ceases few of the contraband stuff they are carrying in their cycle, before terrorizing them as well. These men live in a small Uruguay town of Melo, situated near the border of Brazil. They make a living by smuggling packaged foods, whisky, household goods, etc from the nearby town Acegua (which is nearly 60 km from Melo). By smuggling, these people are not trying to make some quick bucks. It is the only way to scrap a living in the impoverished place, where the local economy is in a run-down state.
The film is set in 1988 and Melo’s inhabitants are blessed with good news. The traveling Pope, John Paul-II will arrive and give a speech at Melo as part of his South American itinerary. The Uruguayan President and many other esteemed authorities are also expected to arrive. But, for the townspeople the most joyous of the media proclamation is the prediction that at least 20,000 Brazilians will be crossing the border to hear Pope’s speech (with subsequent media coverage the predicted no. of people to visit Melo increases). The poor but enterprising men & women of Melo borrow money from bank and some sell their lands to install food & drink stands for providing refreshments to the visiting Brazilians. The people of Melo are all religious and few don’t want to make money of Pope’s visit, but this is an opportunity of a lifetime. In media interviews, few voices state that the event will be a commercial flop, although the general euphoria doesn’t give them such thoughts of failure.
While Beto’s neighbors are busy thinking about food stands, Beto has a different idea. After long speech and so much food, the faithful visitors will need to relieve themselves. So, he decides to build a public toilet. This is a town where there are not many private privies and so the idea of a public toilet may cater to everyone, once the feeding frenzy ends. But, building a public lavatory isn’t an easy task for Beto, who earns in scraps. He asks his resilient wife Carmen (Virginia Mendez) for the money she has saved over the years. She vehemently denies, since that money is for their smart, teenage daughter Silvia (Virginia Ruiz). Silvia boasts the dream of becoming a journalist after pursuing courses in the big city MonteVideo. Within her room at night, Silvia playacts as a journalist. She goes around the town, observing the journalists covering the Pope’s visit with a look of idolatry. Beto runs into trouble in one of his smuggling journey and in order to realize the dream of building the toilet, he makes a deal with the ‘devil’.
The foremost strength of “The Pope’s Visit” is that it doesn’t give into the temptation of being uplifting by embracing the sentimentality or idealism of poverty. Writer/directors Cesar Charlone and Enrique Fernandez make us root for Beto’s success, but not so in a way that the underlying social aspects are used as mere plot element. In fact, the townspeople’s socioeconomic predicament and their indelible religious concern are given as much attention as Beto’s quest. The camarderie and the hopeful nature of the little characters of the town are realized in the most authetic and realistic manner. So, we get the sense of a community; not the sense of watching certain caricatures blindly celebrating poverty. Beto’s unlikable characteristics are well realized and Silvia’s dreams are given equal importance. By the inclusion of such element, the writer/director duos aren’t nudging us at every turn saying ‘this is how you should feel about my character and their predicament’. This lack of one-sided moral stance is what profoundly reveals the injustice done to these poor people.
The film is slightly flawed by its conventional as well as muddled depiction of corruption among the border patrol and customs officials. At those sequences, Beto and his people’s downgraded position are revealed through simple dialogues. But, with the impending arrival of pope and through the presence of mass media, directors Charlone and Fernandez, impeccably uses powerful visuals to showcase injustice acts of the system. Those visuals would enrage and kindle the thoughts of every socially or politically conscious human. Why do we idolate pompous people and their abstract authority that relishes in playing with people’s simple dreams? The film doesn’t pass any judgment on Church or mock the religiously faithful people, but it is generally critically of all the idols of the system, whose messages of hope and peace gives nothing to the people, who desperately want them. In the background and in TV relay, we hear Pope talking about dignity, hard work (“Work must not be performed simply to earn a living….." says the Pope), emphasizes on women’s resilience and the need for spiritual salvation. Thousands of pilgrims hear it, but once the speech finishes, they go on about their way, not hearing the voices of poor workers (with food stalls and so on) hoping to make a living. What effect did the great Pope’s speech had on the visitors? Did those soulful speeches bring any meaning to those who hear? As the venerable Pope or esteemed politicians say ‘the spirit of the poor must be celebrated’. But don’t they deserve something that pertains to elevate their economic conditions.
The film-makers also take a dig at the despicably exaggerated coverage of the media, with no concrete information. The media gives no practical assistance to the impoverished and in fact ruins them. Two visuals in “The Pope’s Toilet” stayed with me, alternately enraging and extracting genuine tears: Beto running with the toilet fixture on his shoulder; and when Silvia views her father, through the TV, desperately asking people in the crowd “Need to use the toilet?” A tear flows from the daughter’s eyes. It may be a moment of epiphany for her and also for us. It’s true that I had never known how poverty feels like, but those images deliver a punch to the heart and guts of people like me. We might have seen hundreds and thousands of films about the poor, but it is those visuals that perfectly define the impoverished state, where every last effort fizzles out. The underlying social message behind Beto’s earnest attempts would alter once perspective of some street vendor or dignified laborers, positioned in the lower rungs of socioeconomic hierarchy.
Nevertheless, “The Pope’s Toilet” isn’t riddled with pathos or anger. Its film-makers surprisingly weave many genuine humorous moments. There’s a radical notion in the way the film’s ending is set up, but at the same time a sense of hope is divulged in the closing frames. This hope doesn’t arise from the promise of a better ‘system’, but simply from the robust bonds between once family and friends. Caser Charlone has worked as cinematographer for Fernando Meirelles’ “City of God” and “The Constant Gardener”. Here, Charlone eschews his flamboyant visual style and steeps the frames with grainy realism. Most of the camera movements are hand-held and it is wonderfully attuned to the motions of cycling smugglers. There are few slow-motion shots, whose presence are justified and never waver into melodrama territory. Except for Caesar Troncoso playing Beto, the cast is full of non-professional actors. The manner with which the actors showcase despair along with moments of little enthusiasm is outstanding. Virginia Ruiz gives a much grounded performance as Silvia, a girl torn between her own ambition and allegiance to family.
“The Pope’s Toilet” (90 minutes) is a heartbreaking, thought-provoking, and oddly uplifting movie about the ‘blessed’ poor and their collapsed dreams. It instills authentic doubts on our society’s venerated institutions.