El Baño del Papa is a charming excursion into the role of religion in the Latin American countryside that explores what true wealth is
El Baño del Papa (The Pope’s Toilet)
César Charlone and Enrique
2007, Chaya/Laroux-Ciné/O2 Filmes
90 minutes, Spanish with English subtitles
LATAMROB rating: ****
Reviewed by Eugene Carey
IT HAS BEEN billed, predictably, by the liberal press as an endearing admonition of an uncaring Catholic church, but El Baño del Papa (The Pope’s Toilet) is more an exploration of faith than it is an attack on the Vatican.
On the one side, we have Beto (César Troncoso), the head of an impoverished family in the town of Melo near Uruguay’s border with Brazil, whose entrepreneurial instincts have yet to lift his family out of their miserable condition, despite his evident hard work.
On the other, we have his wife Carmen (Virginia Méndez), a pious Catholic whose faith equips her seemingly to endure any hardship – and there are many in her small family’s meagre existence.
In the middle is the reluctant teenager Silvia (Virginia Ruiz) who appears to see or understand neither side from a condition delineated by her evident desire to escape her, well, condition.
Pope John-Paul II is due to visit, provoking great expectations among townsfolk of an influx of huge crowds bringing with them many opportunities to make a quick and easy buck.
Thus are born as many harebrained schemes to make money from the visitors as there are miracles in the Bible, among which are Beto’s dreams of providing a toilet that desperate punters will pay for as they queue to be blessed by his holiness.
Suffice to say the poor man moves heaven and earth in an effort to build a local version of a public toilet in his front garden, encountering many hurdles to fulfilling his dream of making a fortune – not least the venal customs officer Meleyo (Nelson Lence), an injured knee and funding problems the like of which would embarrass most banks, especially in the current financial climate.
Along the way, Carmen questions her husband’s virtue in the pursuit of wealth from the Pontiff’s visit. It should be about the faith, she insists, not about how many rolls of toilet paper they will get through on the fateful day.
César Charlone and Enrique Fernández have created a charming and tragi-comic snapshot of the relationship millions of Latin Americans have with Catholicism in which the church’s apparent indifference is contrasted with their evident poverty. Yet it would seem that the directors are content to blame the poverty – and not the church itself – for the greed that sweeps through Melo.
That the Pope’s visit is so brief as to have been almost inconsequential and the expected multitudes bringing bounty never materialised allows the directors to ponder, above all else, the role media hype plays in raising wildly unrealistic expectations among the masses about one man in a white Batman outfit resolving their earthly problems. At the heart of this story is the political vacuum that exists in a town in which corrupt officials constantly derail the efforts of hard-working men to improve their lives. Local officialdom seems to be all but absent, other than at the checkpoints at which Beto routinely loses his smuggled goods.
And it is the quality of religious devotion that is at issue here: when asked how her tidbits had sold when it had become clear that the day had been a washout, Carmen’s neighbour admits that the only thing she had sold that day was her soul to the Devil.
El Baño del Papa is an entertaining excursion into the role of religion in the Latin American countryside, but more a treatise about wealth and what makes a man truly rich than about poverty.