Pesos, Portapotty, Popemobile
Not the Dada exhibition it sounds, “MoMA Presents: The Pope’s Toilet” refers to Uruguay’s official submission for last year’s foreign-film Oscar. Co-written and –directed by César Charlone and Enrique Fernández, El baño del Papa is a celebration of hope, humor and resilience among the humble and only secondarily a dig at media distortion and the disconnect between the Church and the poor who are always with us.
The plot is as simple and ingenious as central Beto (César Troncoso), an appealing crackpot whose familiar “thinking cap” brainstorms are indulgently smiled at by neighbors, wife Carmen (Virginia Méndez) and, in the end, teen daughter Silvia (Virginia Ruíz). His own cinematographer, without beating it over the head Charlone photographs the rolling farm- and marshland, cinderblock-and-corrugated-tin dwellings and shops of the one-horse border towns as underpinning for the faith and close-to-the-earth life of his campesinos. Closer to Brazil than to Montevideo, district seat Melos comes across smaller than its actual 50,000-plus, hardscrabble and filled with junked automobiles and houses lacking euphemistic indoor amenities.
With next-door racing buddy Valvulina (Mario Silva), whom he affectionately calls “Blackie,” plus another half dozen, Beto earns money bicycling across the border with contraband household goods, packaged foodstuffs and whiskey. The smugglers leave the road to avoid uniformed controls but are regularly dogged into the fields by venal official Meleyo (Nelson Lance), who seizes his share of the cargo and drops half-serious threats about their women.
The backwater becomes news with the announcement that on May 8, 1988, popular John Paul II will bless it with a visit in company with President of the Republic Sanguinetti. Over drinks and penny-ante cards, Beto learns of the event on “Stuttermouth”/Tartamudo’s (Hugo Blandamuro) new bar television set. Anticipation grows as reporters gush about a mass influx of national and Brazilian pilgrims that will tax Melo’s resources.
Carmen, Valvulina’s wife Teresa (Rosario Dos Santos) and the townswomen in general are religious, but caught up in news and optimistic peasants interviewed on TV, the whole town, it would seem, sees a way to see the Pontiff and make pesos hawking their food specialties, bunting, balloons and buttons.
One step ahead, he thinks, Beto’s stroke of genius is that, with so much food and politicos’ long fidgets-inducing speeches, the hundred thousand and more faithful will need to relieve themselves. If you build it, they will come, and they will pay manna from heaven for “full or half-service,” so scrounging available cinderblocks and basics, Beto builds his dream moneymaking public privy.
There is gentle humor in his Spanish-misspelled sign and “bathroom attendant” rehearsals for adoring but slow Carmen and Silvia, whose own dream is to attend radio-announcer school in the capital, and in sexy red panties for conservative Carmen and in media coverage of uneducated people’s innocent expectation and preparation. A puzzling few seconds is Beto’s new CG 125 motorcycle, bought, ridden and gone for good -- perhaps only a dream of freedom -- but the rest is real, disagreeably so in the secret deal he cuts with Meleyo for eight free unregistered trips for the toilet project.
This agreement with the crooked customs agent is not his undoing. In fact, its rupture brings Carmen even closer and makes Silvia once again recognize the good in her Micawberish father. A joke is that, with so many sausages ground and stuffed for the Papal visit, there are no cats or dogs left, but the miles of unsold food literally go to the dogs, pigs and cats. End-title indications of actual statistics are unnecessary, for disappointment is mingled with dignified resignation in the local faces, in Teresa’s “I only sold my soul,” in everyone’s “Is that all there is?”
“Workers’ World greets . . . the Traveling Pope of Peace,” who praises women, “bless[es] your Christian homes,” decries “work performed simply to earn a living,” leaves and “never came back.” What remains, what endures, is the goodness of the poor, who are the ignored bulwark of Church and state.
(Released by Film Movement; not rated by MPAA.)