A poor Uruguayan town on the Brazilian border awaits the visit of Pope John Paul II. This means pilgrims will arrive in need of food and drink, paper flags, souvenirs and commemorative medals. Brimming with anticipation, the locals hope not only for blessing but also a small share of material happiness.
Produced in 2007, El baño del papa takes a look back at the day on which the Pope visited the small Uruguayan border town, Melo, in 1988. This factually based event is eclipsed by the fictional, personal details of the town’s inhabitants as they prepare for his arrival and the commercial opportunities the expected crowds may bring. In particular, El baño del papa focuses on a contraband smuggler, Beto, and his plan to obtain supplies from across the border in Brazil in order to construct a public toilet that he can charge visitors to use. Beto’s smuggling activities are already complicated by his limited means of transport, his bicycle, and the film captures farcical moments as he tries to carry the construction material along bumpy dirt roads. The film’s mix of humour (Beto’s laughable ideas) and pathos (the failure of his plans to come to fruition) is indicative of a tendency within the Latin American region to deal with ongoing social and economic difficulties through films that are rich with colourful stories and experiences. At the same time, Beto shares screen time with a variety of carefully constructed characters that allow the particularities of their north-Uruguayan province to develop.
These particularities are supported by the poetic realist style that César Charlone (working in this case as director and cinematographer) brings to the film. On the one hand, warm hues combine with carefully chosen autumnal landscapes to create an atmospheric tone of a fading past. The film’s often shallow focus draws out the expressive quality of the characters’ faces and body movements while the gentle rhythms of quiet dialogue from Beto’s wife Carmen, daughter Silvia and friend Valvulina are counterposed with Beto’s frenzied energy, creating a dynamic tempo throughout. On the other hand, unobtrusive editing allows the action to develop within its own time and the intimacy of moments within the characters’ conversations suggests the audience is eavesdropping on an existent community. This combination of expressive tendencies and realism is most apparent during the sequence subsequent to the Pope’s arrival when it becomes clear that no crowds will materialise within Melo. Archive footage of the Holy Father is woven into a montage of the local citizens’ doomed attempts to gather people to the food and souvenir stalls they have set up. The sequence climaxes in a slow tableau of shots that depict the excessive and simultaneous empty remains of all the products that were put on sale: sausages lie abandoned on the ground; heaps of bread rolls cover a table and spill out of large bags on the floor; plastic flags are piled haphazardly. Although the sequence could potentially terminate in stylistic abstraction, it is brought back to a humanist portrayal of the town’s inhabitants through strong characterisation and attention to detail in the way the characters define themselves. In a small moment at the end of these scenes, Carmen’s neighbour visits her to give her one of the Brazilian medallions that she, and others, bought on the day of the visit. It is a poignant moment as it is exactly the type of medallion that Beto told Carmen would not be popular. However, the significance is in the detail as the film replicates Carmen’s close look at the medallion and then cuts to observe her quiet but pleased contemplation of the object that, rather than produce anger or frustration, solidifies her ongoing relationship with her neighbour.
This attention to the personal fabric of life in Melo is supported by the directors’ decision to include a mix of professional and non-professional actors. The non-professional actors originated from the town and are able to integrate local detail and features with their performances. It is a practice that has a long history in Latin America and has been significantly highlighted in recent years through films such as City of God (2002) and La Ciénaga (2001). At a meta-textual level, this localism is further enhanced by the link the directors have to the stories they are telling. Enrique Fernández drew upon his own personal history growing up in Melo when he wrote the original script while César Charlone brought his experience as a Uruguayan domiciled in Brazil to the duo-national influences in the film. The authenticity that actors and directors lend to the film is common to productions in the region, drawing on the influence that neo-realism and post-war European auteur cinema had on Latin American directors. It ultimately helped the film gain traction in film festival and art-house circuits that support a global art cinema aesthetic based on the socio-economic and cultural background of the filmmakers.1
While the border crossing aspect of the film has its roots in the historical location of the plot and Charlone’s desire to assimilate his transnational experience into his filmmaking, it is also symptomatic of a tendency for art cinemas to locate themselves beyond a singular national context. There is often political agency in the ability for film to remind us about the arbitrary nature of national borders. Scholars such as Hamid Naficy, Dina Iordanova and Anne Marie Stock highlight transnational filmmakers that use migrant possibilities and border crossing as a state of consciousness that transcends the limits imposed by states and government. The fluid way in which Beto and Valvulina negotiate their business deals with their Brazilian counterparts and live their lives between both countries on a daily basis confirms a state of being that exists beyond the national. At the same time, El baño del papa does not leave the border behind completely and, instead, the film constantly works to rearticulate the border as site of personal and social significance. Thus, the opening shots showing the protagonists as they cycle their way past the frontier are set within wide landscapes and there is unequivocal freedom in their mobility. Yet within the same sequence, Beto and Valvulina are caught by the border guard Meleyo. He reappears throughout the film as a figure of authority that is manifest and continuously present in the characters’ lives. His ability to confiscate their goods and treat them as second-class citizens reminds us of both the legal frameworks that condition where a person can and cannot work as well as the power the state exerts over ordinary citizens in this process. Although Meleyo’s unfair and crooked practice represents a corruption of state power, it is clear that he is equivalent to the border in terms of the limitations to freedom that it sanctions. This is not just the restriction to travel and work but also greater freedoms such as self-determination and economic independence. Throughout the film, Melo’s border status formulates much of the characters’ lives. Money and resources are scarce at this outpost at the end of the country yet characters are not free to transcend the frontier in order to better their situation.
This depiction is particularly important for our current era of globalisation in which the fluidity and mobility of world citizens is celebrated. Although El baño del papa is set in the 1980s, and an argument could be made that the increased globalisation in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries represent a new world order, the challenges posed in the film remain relevant today. El baño del papa is part of a trend of recent films from Latin America that emphasise the difficulty of traversing national frontiers. This aspect is most often depicted in films that place characters against the US–Mexico border (Norteado (2009), Sleep Dealer (2008), Sin nombre (2009) but can often be found in other Latin American films (American Visa (2005), Mi mejor enemigo (2005), Rabia (2009) La León (2007).