Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Pope's Toilet (El Baño del Papa) -- poverty and hope

Directors: César Charlone and Enrique Fernández, 2007.

The Uruguayan film, The Pope's Toilet, has a lengthy opening introduction before getting to the main story, which is loosely based on actual events. This extended prolog introduces the era, 1988, the protagonist, Beto (César Troncoso) a petty smuggler, and the village, Melo, a small Uruguayan town nestled on the Brazilian border.

The first act paints a portait of life in this town. It is a life of poverty and frustration, of people scraping a living in homes that are little more than hovels. But this is a life that these people are accustomed to, a struggle that they accept as normal. Beto, his wife Carmen (Virginia Méndez), and their daughter Silvia (Virginia Ruiz) all live in a home where the rooms are divided by hanging blankets and where the bathroom is an out-house. Jobs are almost non-existent and the men make a living by smuggling goods in and out of Brazil on bicycles. The more successful smugglers can afford a moped or motorcycle to make their labor easier and quicker.

The slow pacing of the directors allows us to see and experience the hopelessness of these lives. The beauty of the natural scenery juxtaposes with the ugliness of the people's homes. Poverty is an obstacle that seems insurmountable. It reminds us of Jesus' saying, "The poor you will always have with you" (Matt. 26:11). In saying this, Jesus is not endorsing poverty or social injustice. He is merely making it clear that in this life in this world, there will not be a solution to this societal problem. Only when his kingdom is firmly established, in the Millennium and beyond, will poverty be eliminated.

Until then, what is important is the attitude of the poor themselves and the attitude of the more fortunate toward the poor. The poor must find hope somewhere. As followers of Jesus, our hope should be in him. For others, it might be in a quick fix. For those of us more fortunate to be blessed with riches, and in America we are rich indeed, we must find it in our hearts to be gracious and generous to those less well off than ourselves. The plight of the poor is usually not their own fault.

When Pope John Paul II is set to visit Melo, the people are given hope. Expecting an onslaught of thousands of visitors from Brazil, they smell instant success. With some predictions of a crowd of 50,000, the locals see a quick fix, an instant solution. By taking out loans, hocking and selling their homes, they pour their money into food and drink that they can make and sell to these visitors. As Jesus fed the 5,000, so these villagers are ready to feed the 50,000 -- but at a price, not for free.

While the rest of the village is busy buying chorizo and planning to make tortillas or fritters, Beto comes up with an ingenious idea. He will build a toilet, an upscale outhouse with a real door and a real porcelain throne. After all, he surmises, with all this food and drink being consumed the people will have to do what comes afterward. And they will need some public facilities, even being willing to pay for full service from Beto and family.

The second half of the film shows Beto building his dream outhouse. With scoffing from some and help from others, he manages to pull it off, even if it is the 11th hour when his new toilet arrives. But the Pope's visit is not the quick fix it was hoped to be.

The Pope's Toilet reminds us that when our hope is placed on the transitory, the ephemeral, it can disappoint. Even if it does succeed, it is often momentary and fleeting, leaving us back in our despair before we have savored the success. But when our hope is set on the eternal, the permanent, it will not disappoint. In some ways, the contrast between the villagers' hope in their soon perishing food and Beto's hope in his permanent toilet is an illustration of Jesus' warning of treasure location (Matt. 6:19-21):
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
When we set our heart and our hope on impermanent treasures, be they food that perishes or stocks that shrink, our hope will dissipate. But when we set our heart and our hope on that future kingdom, that hope will not disappoint.

Ultimately, The Pope's Toilet is poignant and sad. It leaves us realizing that poverty and hopelessness is a fact of life and a way of life for many around the world. We can certainly count our blessings and be thankful for all we have in this world. But where is your eternal hope?

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

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