SXSW Film Review: Chronicles of a Wandering Saint

Argentinian divine comedy is a visual miracle

“Baby, you're all that I want / When you're lyin' here in my arms, / I'm findin' it hard to believe / We're in heaven.” Dutch singer Do floats atop a techno dance beat halfway through SXSW selection Chronicles of a Wandering Saint.

A morbidly humorous needle drop, the song perfectly encapsulates the film’s macabre mix of absurdity and magical realism.

Elderly chapel custodian Rita (Argentine icon Mónica Villa) lives a quiet life in the countryside town of Santa Rita. She spends her days muttering Hail Marys, scrubbing the church floors, and not-so-obviously vying to impress the priest. One day when she’s cleaning, Rita chances upon what might be the key to her existential yearning, a miracle in the form of a missing statue depicting none other than Santa Rita.

Borrowing inspiration from Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez and French filmmaker Jacques Tati, Argentinian-born director Tomás Gómez Bustillo delivers a mystical debut feature that incites questions of, “Did that just happen?” and “Am I supposed to be laughing?” He crafts a world where the Devil rides a motorcycle and the deceased have discounted and premium options to access heaven. Like his predecessors, Bustillo weaves a complex plot structure that lulls the audience into a trance then snaps them out with jarring jolts, all the while questioning what’s real and what really matters and whether the reality of something is what matters about it.

On a technical level, Bustillo works wonders. From the immaculate set design of interior spaces to the bold lighting choices that obscure already narrow frames, he stays acutely aware of the confines of his own style. That is, until he intentionally breaks his own rules, like throwing in a European electro house track after building up a repertoire of clarinet and piano serenity. Without giving away too much, because Chronicles really is a see-it-to-believe-it visual treat, just know that Bustillo pulls it off.

It also can’t be overstated how much subtle comedy exudes from the premise. Rita may or may not have discovered a lost holy relic, but she cares more about the brownie points she’ll reap among the church ladies than the spiritual aspect. On top of that, she’s been ignoring her husband’s romantic gestures despite a clear loneliness setting in with aging. A turn of events at the film’s midpoint – a fitting place for a fragmented narrative to splash the title card and credits sequence – upends Rita’s worries, allowing her to see the humor and absurdity of life. Turns out, miracles surround Rita everywhere. Sometimes she just needs to wander a while to see them.

Chronicles of a Wandering Saint

Visions, World Premiere

Tue 14, 2:45pm, Alamo Lamar B
Thu 16, 11am, Alamo Lamar C

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