The Pope's Toilet

Melo prepares for the anticipated 1988 visit of Pope John Paul II
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REVIEW In the Uruguayan hamlet Melo, poor residents like Beto (César Troncoso) squeak by smuggling consumer goods over the border from nearby Brazil — despite being frequently stopped, harassed, and robbed by corrupt, mean-spirited customs guard Meleyo (Nelson Lence). When Pope John Paul II's 1988 visit encompasses a stop in Melo, the villagers enthusiastically prepare for an anticipated huge tourist influx, hoping their makeshift food stands and other services can reap life-changing profits from the visiting faithful. It's Beto's idea to build a flush-toilet bathroom outside his humble home that relief-needy procession-watchers can pay to use. Erecting it, however, involves getting in financial bed with the untrustworthy Meleyo, and some white lies told to Beto's long-suffering wife (Virginia Méndez) and primly disapproving daughter (Virginia Ruiz). Enrique Fernández and César Charlone's Uruguay-Spanish co-production deftly melds two quite different things: the sweetly comic village ensemble piece and the pitiless Bicycle Thief-style portrait of desperate measures that those without class, educational, or government resources must take to get ahead — or just survive. Charlone, a cinematographer turned director who previously shot Fernando Meirelles' features City of God (2002), The Constant Gardener (2005), and this year's Blindness), lends the countryside a poetic beauty to soften the co-directors' sometimes harshly realistic script.

THE POPE'S TOILET opens Fri/30 in San Francisco.

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