Exultation: 'The Pope's Toilet' reopens the SFFS Screen at the Sundance Cinemas Kabuki Fri/30. (Photo courtesy SFFS)

César Charlone Directs 'The Pope's Toilet'

Miguel Pendás January 27, 2009

Celebrated Oscar-nominated cinematographer César Charlone recently codirected his first theatrical feature film, The Pope’s Toilet, a darkly comic farce about Pope John Paul II’s visit to a sleepy Uruguayan hamlet. (SF360.org editor’s note: The film kicks off the new year of programming at SFFS Screen with a one-week run at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas on January 30.)

Like most filmmakers on the world stage, César Charlone is a recurrent traveler. Driving to the Sao Paulo airport, he talks to me on his cell phone about his trip. "I’m on my way to Poland for the Plus Camerimage film festival," he says modestly. This little-known festival is dedicated to the art of cinematography, and Charlone, nominated for an Academy Award for his work on Fernando Meirelles’s City of God, will be the featured guest. Two recent examples of his work as a cinematographer will be featured: Stranded: I’ve Come from a Plane That Crashed on the Mountains (SFIFF 2008), directed by Gonzalo Arijon, and Blindness, directed by Meirelles. Moreover, Blindness is in competition for the grand prize and Charlone will serve on a jury.

Building up to his debut as a narrative director with The Pope’s Toilet, Charlone has had a remarkable career that has taken him far and wide. He was born in Montevideo, Uruguay and moved to Brazil in 1980, where he has been a cinematographer and director of commercials, music videos, documentaries and TV narratives for more than 20 years. In his work for television, he usually writes the scripts as well. It was while filming TV commercials that Charlone first began working with Meirelles, which later led to their collaboration on City of God, The Constant Gardener and Blindness.

It is not common for a director of photography to succeed as a director or screenwriter, and perhaps even rarer, after success, to go back behind the lens. But Charlone has a different philosophy about filmic careers than most. While spending three-and-a-half years as a teacher at the international film school in Cuba, he taught students to be good at everything. "My background is in independent film," he says. "What we did in Cuba was to teach the students to be generalists. I don’t care for the approach where the division of labor has to be so structured, where some people can only make films as director or cinematographer or producer. I find that to be artificial. I like to circulate among the jobs."

Charlone’s connection to Stranded, Arijon’s heartfelt documentary about the members of a Uruguayan rugby team that survived a 1972 crash in the Andes, is a very personal one. Charlone was on the passenger list for Flight 571, but didn’t get to Montevideo in time and missed the flight. His closest friend, with whom he had intended to travel, died on the mountain along with 28 others.

The circuitious road to the making of The Pope’s Toilet that brought Charlone together with codirector Enrique Fernández began when Charlone went to Uruguay in 1988 to take documentary footage of Pope John Paul II’s visit. "Ten years later," says Charlone, "Enrique got the idea to make a narrative film and wrote a treatment, which he showed me." The two decided to codirect. "I had directing experience, and Enrique was a writer, had written some scripts, but had never worked on a set," Charlone says. "I was in charge of the mise-en-scene, he did the writing."

They began with $70,000 in seed money and kept costs low by shooting in Super 16. They applied to show their first reels at Films in Progress (Cine en Construcción), a joint project of the Toulouse and San Sebastian film festivals. In this program, a handful of filmmakers from Latin America are invited to present works-in-progress in hopes of attracting completion funds. The screenings are attended by industry professionals who offer critiques. A jury then votes on cash and in-kind prizes offered by film labs, distributors and film commissions. The first presentation brought an encouraging response. They went back to Brazil and finished principal photography, then returned to Films in Progress in 2005. This time they won the top award, which made completion and distribution possible.

While Charlone has worked on major productions and can create luxurious images with the best in his field, he also knows how to do it with limited resources. His grandfather was an art critic and his father a theater director, and Charlone grew up in a family where painting and painters were the subject of everyday conversation. He followed an interest in still photography and painting as a child, and applies painterly sensibilities in his contemporary work. He relishes the challenge of enhancing imagery through digital postproduction and has become an expert at it.

Part charming Latin American tale of village absurdity á la Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez and part acid social commentary, the South American hit film The Pope’s Toilet is a darkly comic study of a browbeaten villager with an inspired plan to better his life. In the sleepy Uruguayan hamlet of Melo, smuggling is a way of life. Every day the smugglers pass back and forth on bicycles across the border with Brazil, paying bribes to the customs guards. While subsistence smuggler Beto (César Troncoso) is able to eke out a meager existence in this fashion, like most villagers he aspires to more. When the Pope announces that he will visit Melo, the villagers spring into action, plotting ways to capitalize on the pontiff’s visit. Most hope to sell food and drink to what will surely be hundreds of thousands of pilgrims, but Beto has what he thinks is a better idea: "I’ll build a toilet!" he declares.

While the story has its obvious element of absurd humor (Charlone has compared Beto’s moneymaking plan to the schemes of Homer Simpson), in the end the crowds never materialize and the villagers’ dreams are crushed. It becomes a touching story of those who find the will to live despite the deprivation to which fate has condemned them. "This film is about dreams," says Charlone. "The need that we human beings have to dream in order to be able to go on with life and keep forging ahead. In the film, everybody has their dream. For me it’s about their dreams."