Pope John Paul II’s visit to a small Uruguayan town near the Brazilian border inspires — then disappoints — the little dreams of a little man in Enrique Fernandez and Cesar Charlone’s borderline condescending “The Pope’s Toilet.” Shot by lenser Charlone with great vitality but diagrammed along standard pity-the-poor themes, the film builds up a rooting interest, only to knock it down when a harsher reality takes over. Mainstream arthouse auds may be a bit bummed out, and despite pic’s solid fest run since its 2007 Un Certain Regard preem at Cannes, Film Movement’s February 2009 vid release will limit Stateside upside.
In 1988, Beto (Cesar Troncoso) supports wife Carmen (Virginia Mendez) and daughter Silvia (Virginia Ruiz) by smuggling goods from Brazil to his burg of Melo, Uruguay, which, in a curious gesture, the Vatican has selected to host a papal visit and speech. Beto and his cohort Valvulina (Mario Silva) are dogged by corrupt customs official Meleyo (Nelson Lence), but this doesn’t stop Beto from aspiring to earn enough to buy a motorcycle to replace his rickety bicycle.
Beto could be an imagined blend of Chaplin’s Little Tramp and one of Vittorio De Sica’s besieged souls (the film literally dares viewers to recall “Bicycle Thieves”), and when he comes up with the idea to build a pay-per-use toilet for the papal event, it seems so ridiculous that he could either pull it off or stumble like a fool.
Along the way, he can’t catch a break, not from a playful race with Valvulina (sprained knee), nor from Silvia, who shames her dad by insisting that she’ll never smuggle. Carmen more or less puts up with Beto’s harebrained scheme, knowing it’ll likely come to naught.
As the big day nears and Beto hustles harder for cash, helmers Charlone and Fernandez (who was born in Melo and shows empathetic intimacy with the remote place) create a modest kind of suspense, even as they appear to be of two minds about the townspeople and their religious devotion. On one hand, the event is viewed as a civic triumph of sorts; on the other, it’s a trick to fool folks into thinking they could make money off the visiting crowds. Where Beto falls along this graph is kept vague and fairly uncertain, but he comes awfully close to being nothing more than pitiful.
Through his performance, Troncoso tries to make Beto more than that, and works effectively to create as much aud goodwill as possible. Still, the most interesting actor here is Mendez, a vet Uruguayan stage thesp in a film debut that reveals much by seeming to do little.
“The Pope’s Toilet” excels most in its expression of a particular time and place, which Charlone films with the kind of physical intensity and realism associated with recent Argentine cinema. The music, by Luciano Supervielle and Gabriel Casacuberta, opts for sounding cutesy.