Friday, August 01, 2008

THE POPE'S TOILET / EL BANO DEL PAPA - finely balanced tragicomedy

EL BANO DEL PAPA is a delightful tragicomic tale of hope and disillusionment in a poor town in Uruguay.

Beto smuggles contraband food and batteries over the border from Brazil on his bicycle. It's hard work and treacherous thanks to the unwanted attentions of the corrupt, indecent "mobile patrolman", Meleyo. Despite the precariousness of Berto's existence, this is not a sob story. Even in poverty, Berto and his mates have a space for drinks with friends, running jokes and a passionate love life. Moreover, Berto is a chippy bloke, always looking for an angle. A visit by Pope John Paul II himself looks like his ticket out of poverty. After all, the slick local TV presenter tells the villagers that floods of faithful Brazilians will come to hear the mass. Why not make some money selling chorizo and hamburgers? Why not mortgage the house or sell your bike to buy kilos of burger buns? And, in a stroke of insane brilliance, why not build a bathroom and charge the tourists to use it?!

It won't ruin anybody's film to report that the promised thousands never flood in. THE POPE'S TOILET is firmly in the tradition of COUS COUS and BIG NIGHT. From the first scene we know that the joy of the film will be in watching the collective madness and that the bitter streak will be the inevitable disappointment. For Berto, it takes the shape of disillusionment with religion: the Pope's visit should've been a miracle rather than a disaster. For his daughter, it takes the shape of disillusionment with the slippery promises and distorted reportage of TV journalists. Ironically, this realisation comes through seeing her father's true character on the TV - wandering through town, begging visitors to come and use his expensive new toilet.

Writer-directors César Charlone and Enrique Fernández have crafted a finely balanced tale. There are bleak moments, but the balance is always restored by Berto's irrepressible drive. Special mention must be made of César Troncoso's performance as Berto. Just look at the cheer joy he communicates when he finally gets to ride a motorbike! Moreover, look at the wonderful camerawork, capturing the thrill of speed, also from Charlone (CITY OF GOD).

EL BANO DEL PAPA played Cannes and Toronto 2007. It opened earlier this year in the Netherlands, Belgium, France and Spain. It is currently on release in the UK and it opens in Argentina on September 4th.

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