March 30, 2009
The Pope's Toilet, 2007
In an episode near the denouement of César Charlone and Enrique Fernández's The Pope's Toilet, grocery runner Beto (César Troncoso), racing across the countryside on his rickety bicycle to install a public toilet in front of his home in time for the papal visit to his village - and more pressingly, the hordes of people expected to attend the holy mass and will invariably need restrooms - is overtaken by a bus filled with Brazilian pilgrims shouting words of encouragement to the hobbling cyclist on their way to the historic event. In a way, the momentary encounter between the struggling, desperate Beto and the pilgrims who express their support from the comfortable distance of a charter bus - but do not offer him a ride to town - reflects the dysfunctional relationship between hierarchical institutions and the people they are entrusted to guide. A historical fiction based on the real-life papal visit of John Paul II to the Uruguayan rural village of Melo during his 1988 Latin American apostolic tour, the film is a wry and trenchant satire on the abstract nature of mediated images, the cycle of poverty, and the exploitive mechanisms of powerful institutions.
Set during Uruguay's transition to democracy after years of military dictatorship, its repressive legacy is still evident in the arbitrary inspections by guards who patrol the porous border between Brazil and Uruguay - a constant, looming threat that is embodied by the intimidating, mobile customs agent Meleyo (Nelson Lence) who, near the beginning of the film, chases a group of returning cyclists from across the hills in his off-road truck before crushing the entire contents of a rider's parcel and confiscating a bottle of rum from Beto's friend, Valvulina (Mario Silva) in retaliation for attempting to running away. Already eking out a meager existence by running grocery orders from local shops to neighboring stores in Brazil, Beto's livelihood is further strained when he is blacklisted by shopkeepers after an afternoon of carousing (propelled, in part, by guards confiscating his groceries after discovering alkaline batteries that had been smuggled, without his knowledge, by a shopkeeper). But salvation seems at hand with the arrival of the pope along with the thousands of pilgrims expected to make the journey into town for the occasion, and villagers have already begun to stake their concessions spots along the route, where they hope to peddle their wares - assorted refreshments, balloons, and commemorative banners - before a generous (and hungry) crowd. Meanwhile, pope fever has also spread to Beto's household, with him eager to earn enough money for a motorcycle that can outrun the customs agents (and prevent further injury to his already hobbled knee), his wife, Carmen (Virginia Méndez) fretting over having enough money to send their teenaged daughter, Silvia (Virginia Ruiz) to a vocational school, and Sylvia, in turn, dreaming of a more glamorous career in journalism, perhaps inspired by the media frenzy surrounding the papal visit that have turned ordinary villagers into perennial television news fixtures.
Interweaving archival footage from street reports and excerpts from the papal visit within the fictional story of Beto's search for a better life, Charlone and Fernández create an ambiguity between truth and fiction that reflect the film's underlying social realism. By presenting the villagers' plight as a series of inequitable encounters - whether by corrupt border guards, shopkeepers (who deduct fees for confiscated items), the media (who sensationalize events in order to create news and boost viewership), and even the church (in an ironic episode, Valvulina's wife, Teresa [Rosario Dos Santos] buys a souvenir medallion from a member of the pope's entourage, even as her vended snacks remained unsold) - the filmmakers reinforce the idea that enabled institutions collectively lead to entrenched marginalization and poverty. It is this sense of collusive exploitation that is implied in Beto's impotent act of protest, implicating both the media and the church in their hollow calls for benediction, as well as the consumerist society (as symbolized by a television that was purchased on installment) that conceals its own degraded status under artificial tokens of privilege.