El Baño del Papa Review
Necessity is the mother of invention... Needs must when the devil drives... Whatever way you want to describe it, when you are living in Melo, a small Uruguayan town on the border of Brazil, you do what you have to in order to get by, and if that means cycling across the border to Aceguá to smuggle a few sacks of grocery provisions and occasional household goods past the customs, then so be it. It’s strictly small time though, the goods often confiscated by the customs inspectors, and it’s never going to make Beto and his friends rich or alter the lives of poverty that they are resigned to – even making enough money to be able to afford a motor-scooter would take some of the pain out of the 60 kilometres journey on bicycle. It would take a miracle to significantly change their fortunes, but a miracle might indeed be exactly what is on the horizon.
It’s 1988 and Pope John-Paul II, the travelling Pope, is about to arrive in Melo and the enterprising inhabitants of the town realise that there might be a chance to make some money out of it. Upwards of 30,000 pilgrims are expected, many of them travelling from Brazil, and they’ll surely need refreshments. While his friends and neighbours set about stocking up on provisions for food and drink stalls however, Beto (César Troncoso) has another idea that doesn’t have seem to have been considered – what are they going to need to do after they’ve been fed and watered? His wife Carmen (Virginia Méndez) has a few pesos put by, but they are to pay for the education of his daughter Sylvia (Virginia Ruiz) who dreams of being a radio or television presenter, and since after the failure of his last trip and some careless talk in the bar Beto’s supply services are no longer required by his regular customers, he has to look elsewhere to get the investment he needs to build a public toilet for the Pope’s visit.
Directed by Enrique Fernández and César Charlone (cinematographer on City of God, The Constant Gardner and Blindness), El Baño del Papa (‘The Pope’s Toilet’) is a charming and funny film, with lots of nice touches by the director and cinematographer that accentuate not only the humour of the story, but also the underlying social aspect and the religious concerns of the people in that part of the world, and they do so with some degree of authenticity and understanding for their predicament (Fernández indeed being a native of Melo and basing many of the characters on real people). The focus is certainly on Beto and his family, showing the conditions they have to live in, showing their closeness and supportiveness despite their poverty, their sense of never giving up on hopes and dreams that are not all that unreasonable or unrealistic, and their willingness to make whatever sacrifices are necessary to attain them. The same sense of detail is shown through the other characters and the sense of community that exists, but there is no sense in the film of either sentimentality or idealism of their poverty – the unadorned nature of their daily lives is laid out quite plainly.
It’s this realistic social underpinning that gives the film a little more edge and truly elevates the arrival of the Pope as a significant event in their lives, lending the occasion a sense of make-or-break intensity that draws the essential spirit out of the characters. The injustice of the system is revealed in conventional ways – the meanness of customs officials picking on easy targets, demanding bribes and other favours – but it’s suggested also in comments about the corruption of politicians and the lies and exaggeration of the media, all of whom fail to see – or choose to ignore – the reality on the ground for most people. Politicians can get away with greater crimes, big-time smuggling operations can afford the means to avoid the customs points and inspections, and it’s the poor who end up paying.
Most significantly, the injustice is highlighted in the very occasion of the Pope’s visit, whose pomp and ceremony is in marked contrast to the lives of the people, trying to square their consciences with their poverty. The Pope may certainly have a message of spiritual salvation for them - there’s a background comment made in his speech to the people about the dignity of labour - but it’s scarcely heard by the people trying to sell their food for a profit, and it seems to have little meaning to the reality of their lives and what they must do to survive. Don’t they deserve a break and some earthly reward? Surely the Pope of all people will understand and forgive their little moral transgressions? It’s this wonderful conflict of interests that El Baño del Papa finds a great deal of meaning and humour.
El Baño del Papa is released in the UK by Soda Pictures. The film is presented on a single-layer disc, in PAL format, and is encoded for Region 2.
The single-layer disc proves to be more than sufficient for the film, the transfer to DVD here looking almost flawless. The image is progressively encoded and presents the film at its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, anamorphically enhanced. The transfer exhibits plenty of detail without appearing overly clinical, the grain having a nice texture and consistency. Colours are marvellous, and the tone and contrast balance all serve the film well, rendering accurate skin-tones and strong blacks even in interior shots. A more discriminating eye might detect the rare faint instance of noise reduction shifting and perhaps some colour-bleeding, but none of these issues are frequent or pronounced and have no significant impact on what is largely an impressive transfer.
The audio mix is straightforward Dolby Digital 2.0 and this proves more than adequate for the demands of the film. The sound is clear and dynamic with no notable issues.
English subtitles are included and are optional. The font is white in a nice typeface, and clearly readable at all times.
The only extra feature is a Photo Gallery of 18 stills which seem to come direct from the film itself.
A fabulous little film, well directed and appropriately photographed in a manner that gets to the heart of its characters, the location they live in and the manner in which they live their lives, El Baño del Papa has a thrilling storyline and engaging characters with a wry sense of humour in the face of adversity that involves the viewer completely in their predicament. Soda’s almost barebones UK DVD release is lacking in any real extra features, but it gets it right where it counts with a superb transfer.