The Pope is coming to the small Uruguayan town of Melo, close to the Brazilian border, which naturally arouses the excitement of the locals, both in terms of religious fervour and entrepreneurial endeavour. Stoked up by the media reports predicting massed numbers of pilgrims from all around the continent, the townsfolk prepare to cash in, making souvenir flags and all manner of chorizo-based foods for the throngs of visitors, in the hope of lifting themselves out of the all-prevalent poverty of the area. Among them is Beto, who makes his small living running goods for 40 miles across the Brazilian border on his rickety boneshaker of a bicycle, either through the manned border post or by way of the rough treacherous terrain surrounding it, guarded by the crooked mobile patrolman Meleyo. He is not guided by greed, but a simple desire to make a semi-honest living for himself and his family, his wife Carmen and daughter Silvia. However, the money he makes from these border runs only seem earn him enough for a few extra drinks at the local watering-hole.
Then there comes his Archimedes moment – if throngs are expected to line the streets of Melo for the papal visit, then at least some are going to need to relieve themselves, so why not build a toilet and charge for its use? That could pay for the motorbike which would make his border crossings easier on his weary body, and leave enough to put aside to put his young daughter through a decent education. Of course, this will involve construction materials, and therefore more money, but surely these costs will eventually lead to the reaping of a healthy dividend for the him and his family?
If this all sounds rather whimsical, then it is to directors Chalone’s and Fernandez’s credit that El Baño del Papa emerges as an engaging story, ultimately presenting a satire of the false hopes which organised religion, coupled with mass-media hystericism, can create in simple, ordinary folk. The film’s realist aesthetic, coupled with Beto’s mode of transport, invites comparisons with De Sica’s Ladri Di Biciclette (1948), and there are other parallels: the position of the father as fallible role model, the entirely believably-rendered relationship between husband and wife, the focus on the poor, working classes. A lofty comparison maybe, but one which this low-key, big-hearted film at least partially deserves.