Posted: 04/23/2009

 

The Pope’s Toilet, (El Bano del Papa)

(2009)

by Ben Poster




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For films originating from smaller filmmaking ‘markets’, the influence of a broader marketability can be strong, if not necessary. Film’s like Cesar Charlone & Enrique Fernandez’s The Pope’s Toilet, that, one assumes, require production funding from an array of foreign sources just to be made, are then subject to an accordingly foreign audience.
That is to say that built into to these film’s DNA, most likely from a very early stage, is an awareness that the story they are telling needs to speak beyond their immediate national contexts.
And yet, it is that very same ‘national context’ that draws the support and interest of a broader audience and the funding that can come with it. So what exactly is a filmmaker to do—pinched between outside interests that paradoxically want your story to be yours, but… well, not ‘too yours.’
But a happy medium is indeed attainable. Stories that speak specifically to a national context, but with eyes on implications beyond those are innumerous in example. In this current filmmaking climate though, I’d say that Brazil’s City of God is as clear an example, or as successful of one, as anything else.
In that film, specific events in Rio’s recent past are used as means to tell a much more broader, and more common tale of adolescent ascent into manhood. TV news and newspaper headlines are transformed, with a flourish, from uniquely intertwined circumstances to themes that are identifiable to someone who has never even heard of a favela—it remained ‘exotically’ Brazilian in all of it’s sights and sounds, but transformed into something much more universal through it’s story arch.
The Pope’s Toilet seems to be aspiring to this precise balance. Set in Melo, Uruguay over just a few weeks in 1988, the film uses a visit from Pope John Paul II as a narrative catalyst to introduce us to, and accelerate, the lives of the townspeople as they prepare for this momentous event. And this film succeeds in many of the same way that City of God does. First off, it is gorgeous—every shot surrounds you in the unique natural light and texture Melo and it’s surrounding hills. The entire visual palette of the film glows with a subtle distinctness that either establishes, or re-affirms the ‘foreignness’ of this remote Uruguayan locale. We see inside of these characters homes, ride their bikes with them—especially beautifully—and even get a peep into their dreams, and ALL of it looks fantastic.
It’s rare to see a ‘double-director’ billing, and I don’t think that I’ve EVER seen one where the DP, Ceasar Charlone, is one of the two, but it almost comes as no surprise here—The Pope’s Toilet is as visually cohesive a film as you will ever see. It fully shares that with City of God, which is no small feat.
Yet, that is unfortunately where the parallels between the two end. The Pope’s Toilet does have a couple strong performances—Virginia Ruiz is especially good as Carmen—but more common are scenes where plot points are scene coming, and the performances the get them there do little to distract us from it. Cesar Troncoso is frustrating as Beto, the lead, as he swings between poignant subtlety and near-slapstick caricature, with only every other instance being relevant to the scene.
But these parts, good and bad, do not ultimately decide The Pope’s Toilet’s fate as a film. Rather, the film’s namesake central tenet does. Though this papal visit is intended to be seen as some sort of disillusionment keystone, it’s much closer to a negatory Field of Dreams—‘if you build it, they WONT come—than any sort of reflexive Beckettian ‘waiting.’
As a narrative device, it indeed drives the plot forward, but as a ‘historic event’ it fails to reflect much more than a disappointing one of. Not that I should be the judge of the precise cultural implications of this anti-climatic-event, but I should feel like it meant something to those involved—something more than, ‘well, that sucked.’
Yes, I think that this balancing act of ‘foreign-ness’ is a pretty bum deal, and anybody, in ANY country should be able to make movie for whomever they’d like to, but… jus because the game is currently rigged doesn’t mean that it can’t be won.
Culturally significant happenings of the recent past seem to be a current WELL-spring for cinematic-meaningfulness, regardless, of their culture—see Milk, This is England, etc. But, like most other wells, this one too can go dry, and, ultimately, the event at the center of The Pope’s Toilet, is just too uneventful.

Ben Poster ben poster lives in chicago



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