Sunday, 10 August 2008

el baño del papa (w&d cesar charlone & enrique fernandez)

A Uruguayan film on general release in London. Not something that happens every week/ month/ year. When I was in Montevideo people mentioned El Baño, but I assumed as it wasn't on release there, then, I would have missed it. The shock of its appearance here should not be underestimated.

However, the reason for its appearance, and success on the international festival circuit, is apparent from the opening frames. A group of smugglers, fuelled by nothing more than pedal power, pursued on the Uruguay-Brazil border by the corrupt customs officer, Meleyo, in his truck. Charlone's cinematography imbues the chase with the drama of Ben Hur. Has there ever been a villain on a bicycle? A bicycle rider signifies various things: poverty, hard-workingness, and a life lived in the open air. Film a group of cyclists trying to get away from a four-wheel-drive and the audience instantly knows who it's rooting for. The smugglers, Beto and Valvulina, are both family men, trying to make ends meet in a world where earning a living is far from straightforward. All over the world, people scamper across borders, trying to turn a profit out of the accident of geography, that peculiar dictate of fate which determines who gets what in a globalised world.

Charlone's camera skillfully depicts the simplicity of Melo, a small Uruguayan town which is part impoverished backwater, part new age nirvana. Earning a crust might be difficult, but the neighbours are friendly and you never have to worry about locking up your bike. It's easy to see why Beto, Valvunia, their families and friends exude a kind of innocent contentment, in between the moments when the rigours of survival get them down. Whilst the narrative's overt theme is the visit of Pope John Paul II to Melo, a nice enough hook, it's sub-text is about family, its trials and tribulations but, ultimately, its rewards. Whilst it seems sentimental that the film ends with Beto's daughter, whose university savings have been blown by his madcap scheme to build a public loo for the Pope's visit, forgiving him, it helps to articulate the film's point that, no matter how poor, if your heart's in the right place you'll get your reward.

As such El Baño has a slightly conservative feel, which from another perspective might be seen as 'universal'. Its artlessness is actually artful; its lack of polish makes it slick. In many ways it seems to have no more to do with the lives of the Montevideans I know than it does with the lives of Londoners. There are two sides to the 'universal' coin - on the one hand it means that your story has a fair chance of making the leap beyond your culture, appearing in cities around the world. On the other, there's a danger that, in appealing to everyone, your story ends up speaking to no-one. El Baño del Papa is a clever piece of cinema, warm and touching, with some convincing performances, but it doesn't reveal as much about Uruguay as I perhaps hoped it would.

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