Love him or hate him, the late Pope John Paul II made an undeniable impact on the world. Following his 1978 election, he quickly became known as "the traveling pope" thanks to his unprecedented willingness to go to the far-flung Catholic faithful rather than wait for them to come to Rome.
The Pope's Toilet (El baño del Papa), a simultaneously charming and hard-hitting rumination on events surrounding one of John Paul's papal visits, comes out today on DVDcourtesy of Film Movement. It is a co-production of Uruguay, Brazil and France, and is co-directed by César Charlone, the acclaimed cinematographer of the excellent films City of God and The Constant Gardener.
The pope made a brief stop in the small, impoverished border town of Melo, Uruguay during his 1988 tour of South America. The locals, anticipating an influx of thousands of visitors from neighboring Brazil, took out exorbitant loans and even mortgaged their homes in order to support their get-rich-quick dreams. They made tamales, chorizo and empanadas by the thousands to satisfy the 50,000+ pilgrims envisioned.
In the film, villager Beto (a winning performance by César Troncoso) is inspired to build a lavish lavatory in his front yard to satisfy the more basic needs of the expected multitudes. Beto's effort makes unanticipated moral demands of himself as well as his wife and teenaged daughter, who longs to become a TV news reporter.
I don't want to give too much away, but suffice to say the Pope-seeking hordes fail to materialize. The Pope's Toilet raises important questions, thanks to an incisive screenplay by Charlone and Enrique Fernández, about social economics, journalistic ethics and religious responsibility. Do the pope's visits make a substantial, positive difference among citizens of nations led by corrupt governments, or do they unwittingly reinforce oppressive structures? While one can argue that the influence Pope John Paul II had in his home country of Poland contributed to the collapse of communism there, many observers have concurred that the recent trip to Africa made by his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, was a disaster that poses a setback to AIDS-prevention efforts there.
The Pope's Toilet has comedic elements and moments but will likely stir feelings of righteous anger in those who view it. For that reason as well as the film's overall craftsmanship, it shouldn't be missed.
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.