New Internationalist

El Baño del Papa (The Pope’s Toilet)

September 2008

Directed by Enrique Fernandez and Cesar Charlone

Beto, like dozens of other people in the Uruguayan border town of Melo, is a small-time smuggler. If they can avoid the customs patrols and pass on Brazilian goods, free of import tax, to local traders, then it’s worth it.

But Beto’s pushbike has seen better days, and his knee troubles him. So when he and his friends see a television announcement that the Pope will be coming to Melo, things seem to be looking up. Apparently tens – and maybe even hundreds – of thousands of visitors will come from Brazil to see His Holiness. This could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – everyone who can plans to set up a stall to sell food or drink to the pilgrims. Beto, though, thinks he’s got a better idea – he’ll build a toilet in his front yard, and charge for its use. 

If this sounds whimsical, it isn’t – director Fernandez hails from the real town of Melo, which the Pope visited in the late 1980s. His film is engaging and witty, but also grounded, gritty, and, using real locations and mostly non-professional actors, utterly convincing. Beto is desperate to make something of the opportunity – not least to get his daughter an education, but also, slyly, to buy himself a moped to carry that bit extra back over the border. The problem is getting the money to buy the parts for the toilet.

Never patronizing or idealizing, it’s at times wrenching, but, with fine cinematography by Charlone – Oscar-nominated for his work on City of God – it’s also gloriously evocative. 

This column was published in the September 2008 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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This article was originally published in issue 415

New Internationalist Magazine issue 415
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