Film Movement DVD Review: The Pope's Toilet (2007)

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Although John Patrick Shanley‘s recent five-time Oscar-nominated film Doubt was set in a 1960s Catholic school and church-- the film’s allegory about the danger of certainty and condemnation without proof seemed to be one that could have been transported to any date and location. Of course, it was the specific feel of a time and place in the movie’s setting that never let you forget that you were dealing with primarily a story about a priest, two nuns, and a mother in bringing the church aspect to the forefront despite Shanley’s admission that he was inspired to write the piece during the “run-up to Iraq.”

On the other hand, the presence of the “church” or rather the Pope is hidden from view until the conclusion of director Enrique Fernandez and Cesar Charlone’s brilliant Uruguayan work The Pope’s Toilet, as instead of a severe church and school we're transported to a Latin American border town. Nonetheless and even more than Doubt-- the Catholic church weighs heavily on our minds during every scene of this neorealist dramedy that screened as an official selection at the Cannes Film Festival.

Having previously seen and admired The Pope’s Toilet roughly a year ago in preparation to summarize the work for its inclusion in the guide for the Scottsdale International Film Festival (despite obviously, my admitted apprehension given the film's title), I was eager to explore it again in its stunning widescreen release from Film Movement. Likewise, I found that it made a perfect but unlikely companion to not just Shanley’s Doubt which I was also preparing to review (for the first time) but Bill Maher’s documentary Religulous as well.

Although they’re three incredibly different works in essentially every way from structures to tone to setting-- it offered a fascinating glimpse (ironically coinciding right around the Christian holiday of Easter) of the way that religion and those involved can unite, divide, inspire, disappoint, and ultimately greatly affect the life of not just one individual but also an entire community, town, and country.

While Shanley’s film had its origins as a Pulitzer Prize winning play and Bill Maher’s thought provoking and comical work took a documentary approach, Pope’s Toiler was inspired by a real life neighbor of the film's first screenwriter Enrique Fernandez. Recalling the individual who would become his main character—Beto—as “the kind of neighbor who came by every morning, just to say hello,” and one who “hid underneath an un-tucked shirt,” whose “thin legs looked like toothpicks when he rode his big old bike that seemed to be on the brink of completely falling apart,” Fernandez later collaborated with the native Uruguayan but Brazilian resident turned award-winning City of God cinematographer Cesar Charlone for the final result.

Drawing from a real event—the film brings us over two decades into the past whereby-- upon hearing rumors that 20,000 Brazillian tourists will be flooding their tiny Uruguayan village for the 1988 visit of “The Traveling Pope,” (a.k.a. His Holiness John Paul II), the locals of Melo eagerly sell their land and take out enormous bank loans in preparation to erect nearly 400 food stands in the hopes that God will provide them with fortune.

While his neighbors opt for mouth watering recipes, long-time petty smuggler Beto (Cesar Troncoso)—weary from the lengthy treks he makes along into Brazil to bring back goods to sell to businesses while dodging a crooked customs officer—decides to put on his notorious thinking cap. Instead of going into the sausage racket, Beto works out an entirely different scheme, logically realizing that after one eats, the next requirement will find passersby looking for a suitable restroom. Taking it upon himself to make his dream a reality and become so wealthy that he can stop aggravating his meningitis and chronic knee pain with the arduous treks across the border, Beto launches into action.

Impulsively, he enlists the help of his devoted but frustrated wife and ambitious daughter who longs to escape her fate as a seamstress or fellow smuggler and become a journalist, by erecting an enclosed “pay toilet” fit for a Pope on Beto's property. However, when the expenses begin mounting, Beto finds himself struggling to make ends meet, not only to provide for his family but also to create what he deems will be the moneymaking answer to all of their problems, which he—along with his neighbors—feel will no doubt be solved by, if not by a Catholic miracle, then a visit from the Pope.

Alternately funny and melancholic, with an obvious homage towards classic Italian neorealist films such as The Bicycle Thief, this deceptively simple and quirky offering became Uruguay’s official entry to the Academy Awards. Additionally, it inspires you to take a cue from Beto and put on those thinking caps as the film also raises some vital questions about ethical and moral obligations and implications that arise when religious figures travel to poverty-stricken communities, leading to mixed results that are sure to have viewers chatting away, especially if you’re caught in public looking for just the right restroom.

In fact, catching it again following the visit of the Pope to America last year and seeing the stories on the news of people taking out mortgages and paying fortunes in a dire economy just to try and see the man in person makes it especially timely viewing. Intriguingly and bravely, the filmmakers never let their main characters off the hook presenting us with Beto’s unlikable characteristics very quickly and making us relate the most to his daughter by refusing to give into the Hollywood temptation of painting the work with a completely uplifting and lovable brush in telling us what we’re supposed to think and feel at every turn. No, we’re torn throughout—seeing all sides—and it makes the film that much more successful as an artistic work to avoid taking one particular moral stance.

Therefore, much like the doubt-struck Doubt and challenging speeches in Religulous, it’s ultimately up to the viewer to decide just what conclusions they’d like to come to given the socially conscious filmmaking of this striking Uruguayan work that is an ideal film for discussion for those interested in the ways in which cinema can be used as a springboard into the realm of humanities, sociology, and more.

Another dynamite find from Film Movement taken right out of the world’s top festivals and delivering it to viewers everywhere who normally would never have seen such a film—the DVD of Pope’s Toilet also features an extremely clever five minute German animated short film about a consumer who gets much more than he bargained for when he plugs in his new home entertainment device Video 3000.

Arriving in May from Film Movement:

Under the Bombs