SXSW 2023 Review: CHRONICLES OF A WANDERING SAINT, A Magical Realist Triumph From First Time Filmmaker Tomás Gómez Bustillo
A magical realist fantasy, first time director Tomás Gómez Bustillo’s Chronicles of a Wandering Saint imagines the path to heaven for a pious woman with dreams of sainthood. Combining old world, small town charm with modern technology and gentle humor, Saint examines the fundamental human desire for recognition and the sometimes-unintended consequences of little white lies.
Rita Lopez (Mónica Villa) is a pious woman. She spends her days meticulously cleaning the church and meeting up with her friends to pray and occasionally gossip. One day while fumbling around in a storage room, she discovers what she believes to be a long missing holy statue. Ecstatic to finally be able to contribute something unique to her priest and the reputation of her local church, she smuggles the statue out to prepare it for a grand unveiling to her priest, but things don’t quite go as planned and her husband, Norberto (Horacio Marassi), has to help her fudge a miracle to save face.
Desperate to finally become a part of her church’s history and step out of the shadows, Rita’s gambit backfires spectacularly and the film takes a dramatic turn toward the absurd. Revealing too much more would ruin the surprise, but let’s just say that Lopez’s life will never be the same and you’ll never look at piety, blinking lightbulbs, or moths in the same way again.
Gómez Bustillo’s film is as much about mining the inherent comedy in small town life as it is about the occasional absurdity of the church. Villa’s performance as this deeply religious woman seeking saintly admittance into the kingdom of heaven is charming as hell. Oblivious to everything that doesn’t directly pertain to her love of God, Rita misses out on simple earthly charms and romance in her search of holiness. Her husband, Norberto, is a hopeless romantic, always trying to make her smile with simple silly gestures that Rita finds frivolous, Marassi is the secret weapon of this film.
Almost nothing moves quickly in Chronicles of a Wandering Saint, the film itself meanders to and fro, not necessarily in search of anything in particular, but more to give the audience a sense of the life Rita lives. We drop in on conversations and adjacent lives, but only to round out Rita’s world. It’s a simple way to fleshing out her character and giving a sense of fullness to her world. We discover her friends and their pettiness when it comes to Rita’s miracle, we peer through a neighbor’s windows to discover a passion that Rita has long since surrendered in the name of piety, we discover that angels and devils surround her, not at war, but just kind of chilling out. This town is a magical place with wonders aplenty, but then again, isn’t every town in its own way?
Once the second half of the film hits – following one of the most delightful full credit rolls I’ve ever seen – Saint takes on a whole new life. Rita’s journey begins anew, she has a chance to be something more than she’d ever hoped, but in following the path set out for her, she learns things about her friends and loved ones that she never knew. Revelations sneak up on her, changing her perspective on what is truly important and who she really was, she winds up contemplating whether her search for happiness was focused in the wrong direction.
It’s tough to describe the exact charm of Chronicles of a Wandering Saint without listing specific plot points that would certainly ruin the surprise, but this film is a gem. Gómez Bustillo’s script and direction are exceptionally confident for a first-time feature filmmaker, he doesn’t overstuff the narrative, dialogue is minimal but impactful, and he allows performances to develop at their own pace, he trusts in his work and her performers and it definitely pays off. Many directors in his same position would rush to cram every idea they’ve ever had into a film, but Gómez Bustillo knows exactly what this film is, and he simply lets it be.
While other films at SXSW have managed to impress by their audacity and energy, Chronicles of a Wandering Saint wows with its simplicity. A high concept film that is full of relatable humor and easily paced to let you soak it all in. Nothing feels rushed or forced, which allows the viewer to remain in the moments of discovery that surprise Rita at every turn in her journey toward saintly recognition. Saint is easily among my top tier favorites of a very successful SXSW this year, and I expect it to hover near the top of my year end list when the time comes. What a debut for Gómez Bustillo, and what a performance from Mónica Villa!