The Pope's Toilet

Reviewed by John Stakes

Last Sunday’s film outing took us for the first time this year to South America, and, fittingly, to the little town of Melo standing on the border twixt Uruguay and Brazil. Why “fittingly”? Because sixty two years old first time director Cesar Charlone is himself Uruguayan born but has lived most of his life in neighbouring Brazil.

Although now in late middle-age, Charlone is no stranger behind the camera. Son of a theatrical director he has worked all his life in film as a cinematographer, his most notable achievements being perhaps his work on “The Constant Gardener” and “City of God”. And Charlone brings his cinematographic skills to the fore to ensure that Melo can here be seen at its best although this agrarian community town has little to offer to the outside world and the casual international traveller...

...until news comes in that Pope John Paul II, popemobile and entourage are to visit the area as part of his 1988 world tour. The press and the authorities hype up the whole Catholic cavalcade and the anticipated influx of pilgrims escalates to around a dizzying two hundred thousand. The locals, caught up in this wave of religious fervour, conclude that these journeymen and women will all need sustenance, souvenirs and succour. Petty smuggler Beto reckons he has hit on a financial winner when realising that the anticipated crowds will not only be answering the call of God but also nature. His choice of retail outlet: a new latrine!

So “The Pope’s Toilet” is created but at considerable cost which includes the appropriation of daughter Silvia’s savings for college in Montevideo where she hopes to study to become a journalist and broadcaster. Construction of the outside latrine is fraught with difficulties leaving Beto to scurry across the border on his bicycle at the eleventh hour to acquire his non-flushing Shanks Trevor under the eyes of the local custom’s officer Meleyo with whom he has struck an uneasy bargain. However Beto manages to overcome all obstacles including the last minutes theft of his beloved bike. He’s the Uruguayan equivalent of Homer Simpson: a man whom you cannot help but root for even though you are not convinced he knows what he is doing, and he’s blessed (but not by the Pope) with the added dash of the lovable rogue about him.

The imminent visit from his eminence galvanises the whole of the local population into feverish enthusiasm as each hopes to gain a share of the expected material benefits and consequential happiness for a short time at least. And much wry observational fun is generated in this bitter-sweet satirical comedy as the great day approaches. The film’s target here however is not so much the Catholic Church but more the mass media and the political left which had just assumed the reins of government in Uruguay at the time of the visit.

However, of the anticipated hordes of pilgrims only eight thousand people materialise to witness the Pope’s address, most of them Melo townspeople who have lined their dusty streets with no less than three hundred and eighty seven stalls weighed down with food and trinkets. So the event proves to be a financial disaster, and the Pope’s blessing proves as empty a gesture as Beto’s washroom. But at least Silvia forgives her father, and Beto may have added value to his home!

Charlone’s film is peopled with actors who seem at one with their surroundings and whose characters are instantly identifiable. The director’s camera was deftly intrusive so we had a real feel into Melo’s everyday life. The musical score beautifully captured both the town’s optimism as the great day approached and the stoicism of its residents.

The witty screenplay for Charlone’s 2007 film was by co-director Enrique Fernandez, and this slightly sentimentalised piece of work was Uruguay’s submission to the 80th Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film. It was turned down but deserved better and Keswick’s ever discerning audience was warmly appreciative. A very enjoyable and affectionate film and Uruguay’s first contribution to the club’s collection. Let’s hope it is not the last.