[The Pope’s Toilet screens Monday, September 8th at 3 pm as part of Latinbeat 2008 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Click here for more information.]
I’m at a loss to explain why The Pope’s Toilet is the most prominent Uruguayan film since 2004’s Whisky. (It’s Sight & Sound’s Film of the Month for August, which I guess counts for a lot; I prefer Neil Young’s conspiracy theory involving Fernando Meirelles.) Whisky was one of Jarmusch/Kaurismäki/et al.’s adorably deadpan spawn, though it ultimately turned in a much bleaker direction (apparently authentic, as confirmed by co-writer/director Juan Pablo Rebella’s subsequent suicide); static, poker-faced laughs are par for the festival course. The Pope’s Toilet would keep better company with the over-caffeinated work of Paolo Sorrentino. Telling a modest, 1988-set story about one village’s economic hopes and failures, co-directors Cesar Charlone and Enrique Fernandez are, if nothing else, the anti-Pedro Costa: poverty’s never looked so over-edited.
The town of Melo is close to Brazil: Beto (Cesar Troncoso) makes his living by taking orders from the shopkeepers, biking over the border, and smuggling the goods back. “Smuggling” is a dubious term: Beto gets busted once, but the border guards don’t bother to hunt down anyone who cross the fields. The more desperate Beto gets, the more he just blows past the hapless guard, who bemusedly notes it with seemingly no further repercussion. For all the scrappiness and verve and seeming opportunity for whimsy (and the title!), The Pope’s Toilet is about as far from comedy as you can get without turning into Michael Haneke.
Beto tries hard, but he’s prone to becoming a mean drunk at every disappointment. He takes money from his wife when he doesn’t have any of his own and threatens his daughter, unbelievably outraged that she’d even try to get out of Melo to follow her dreams of broadcast journalism: he thinks she should join him in smuggling. Obligatory reading of the film through a Marxist lens suggests it’s not Beto’s fault: he’s a product of a failed economic system, undermined by a Catholic church whose concern for South America is a token sop for TV news. But Beto is surrounded by people under equally grueling circumstances who don’t slap their kids, drunkenly lurch at their wives or generally act like Atlas shrugged the globe down onto them. Beto is, in short, an asshole, and not a particularly interesting or entertaining one at that. Organizing the film around him seems like a fluke.
The plot concerns the town’s efforts to make the most out of Pope John Paul II’s upcoming visit: depending on who you ask, some 8,000 Brazilians might be following him, and the dirt-poor town gets its energies together to greet them with all the chorizo sandwiches and other fresh treats one could ask for. Beto has a more practical scheme: he’ll build a toilet, then charge the visitors. Simple enough. What I don’t understand is why Charlone and Fernandez think this is an excuse for exercises in house music. Beto’s saga is flecked with bits of chopped-up guitar, mediocre beats, and, for particularly puzzling effect, moments when the dialogue is echoed back in glitchy segments. Visually, it’s all quick cuts, weird filters, and music-video pacing. It’s impossible to overstate how distracting all this is: with a void where character out to be, it’s all glitzy dirt. I certainly don’t believe poor people’s lives are automatically trivialized by fantasy and flash, but, in this case, form doesn’t equal function and neither side of the equation is particularly pleasant.
Vadim Rizov is a New York-based freelance writer. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, The Onion A.V. Club and Paste Magazine, among others.