Often these films emphasise the powerlessness that individuals feel when confronted by structures of power that are unresponsive. Meleyo is the face of unyielding border control while another one of these structures, the media, is represented by the newscaster who gives frequent updates on the preparations for the Pope’s visit. Unlike Meleyo, he does not appear in the same space as the other characters but instead materialises through black and white images on various television screens. When towards the end of the film, he decrees the Pope’s visit a great success and implores him to return, Beto tries to act in defiance to his ridiculous words by throwing a bottle of wine at the screen. It is telling that only the bottle smashes, and, while it drips a red wash of colour across the glass, the newscaster’s image continues unrelentingly. Beto and the other characters have no ability to stop or overturn the media’s misinformation and apparent lack of concern for their predicament in the same way that they have no effect on border policy and control.
As viewers, we are at a remove from this situation and we are given an overview of the events that means we do not fall into the same state of naïve optimism that infects the characters. In the first instance, the unfolding of the narrative privileges us with the ability to see that the newscaster’s excited estimate of up to 200,000 attendees is a fallacy. We are also given the hindsight to understand, in a moment of bittersweet humour, the essential failure of the event. In the film’s final statement the following lines appear on screen for the audience only:
“The Pope never came back. It is estimated that on May 8, 1988, fewer than 8,000 people attended the speech. Most were from Melo. 387 stands were set up. There were about 400 Brazilians and some 300 journalists.”
While the position of discerning viewer invites us to laugh at Beto in the final image of the film, when we see him in his toilet hatching up a new scheme, it does not prevent identification. Instead the intimate moments that occur when the characters share conversation in the small rooms of their houses, in the basic local bar, in their small backyard and on the bumpy surfaces of the road, summon a connection with the audience that transcends the short time frame provided by the film. It is in this context that Enrique Fernández stated that ‘the story finished with a broken dream but the spirit does not die’. 2 An understanding of the vital spirit and ingenuity of the characters, who in this case represent not just a fictional construct but the essence of Melo, is particularly important for global viewership of the film. At a time when the Latin American region is often constructed as backwards and incompetent, a humanist story such as El baño del papa makes it possible to separate the desires, hopes and energies of a people from the structures of power that define and limit their position in the global economic order.
When released, El baño del papa was one of only a small handful of Uruguay-based films to receive international distribution. David Martin Jones and Soledad Montañez (2007, 2009) explain the way that the film is part of an emergent new Uruguayan cinema that is influenced by the international arena yet also manages to create stories specific to contemporary Uruguayan audiences. This ability to tell a story of global significance within a deeply local context allows it to transcend the stereotypes connected with Uruguay and the greater Latin American region to show the determination of an individual community amongst national, regional and global structures.
1. See David Martin-Jones and Soledad Montañez, 2008.
2. See the film notes from Cannes Film Festival 2007: www.golem.es/elbanodelpapa/notas.php.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Uruguay. Production Company: Chaya Films. Directors: César Charlone, Enrique Fernández. Screenwriters: César Charlone, Enrique Fernández. Cinematographer: César Charlone. Editor: Gustavo Giani. Cast: César Troncoso (Beto); Virginia Méndez (Carmen); Mario Silva (Valvulina); Virginia Ruiz (Sylvia).]
Dina Iordanova, ‘Shifting Politics of Place and Itinerary in International Cinema’ in Senses of Cinema, www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/01/ 14/displaced.html, 2001, pp. 1–10.
David Martin-Jones and Soledad Montañez, ‘Bicycle Thieves on Bicycles? El baño del papa (2007)’ in Studies in Hispanic Cinema, 4:3, 2008, pp. 183–98.
David Martin Jones and Soledad Montañez, ‘Cinema in Progress: New Uruguayan Cinema’ in Screen, 50:3, 2009, pp. 334–44.
Hamid Naficy, An Accented Cinema: Exilic and Diasporic Filmmaking, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.
Ann Marie Stock, ‘Through Other Worlds and Other Times: Critical Praxis and Latin American Cinema’ in Framing Latin American Cinema: Contemporary Critical Perspectives, Minneapolis, London, University of Minnesota Press, 1997, pp. xix–xxxv.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.