Chronicles of a Wandering Saint (2023) - Reviewed

Images courtesy of Hope Runs High

For as long as humans have existed–no matter the era, culture, or location–people have asked a single question that collectively unites, intrigues, and often frightens mankind: “What happens to us after we die?” This persistent mystery has been the topic of many classic pieces of art and literature, and when the 20th century rolled around, inevitably film, too. Many creative cinematic depictions of the afterlife have been shown over the years, and now, in Chronicles of a Wandering Saint, Argentinian director Tomás Gómez Bustillo joins the ranks of filmmakers who have decided to put their own spin on the topic, and it has a charm all its own.
Rita (Mónica Villa) is a devout Catholic living in a small rural town where everyone knows each other’s names. She and her husband Norberto (Horacio Marassi) live a simple life together in their quaint abode, but there’s a piece of her yearning for more out of life. While most people might pick up a new hobby or do some volunteer work to fill that void, Rita decides to go overboard in her attempt:  she attempts to stage a miracle. One day, she discovers a long-lost statue of the Virgin Mary in her church’s storage space and decides this is her big ticket to sainthood. While she’s on her way back after filling her car to the brim with white flowers to accompany the statue “miraculously” showing back up on the church’s altar, the world Rita knows comes to a screeching halt, and here we see one of the boldest mid-film shifts in recent history.

This is where the audience starts to see a glimpse of Bustillo’s playful depiction of the afterlife. It dips its toes in Christianity’s portrayal of Heaven and Hell, but it’s entirely its own, feeling sometimes more derivative of a Jim Jarmusch film than some archaic passage from the Bible. It’s also where the humor in the film begins to find its groove, winning viewers over with its eclectic blend of the painfully mundane generously sprinkled with complete absurdism. The film tends to lead with an understated tone, which often has the power to make the fantastical happenings of the film even funnier because of the dichotomy it creates.

Humor aside, Chronicles of a Wandering Saint also works because of the earnest performances of its lead actors. Norberto’s sweet devotion to his long-time partner even during her strange miracle scheme is endearing to watch, and all of Rita’s quirks and subtleties are wonderfully played by veteran actress Villa. Together, Norberto and Rita are a bit of an odd couple–sometimes even diametrically opposed to each other–and this makes the simplicity of the plot feel a bit more complex as a result. One of the greatest charms of this film is its ability to make the natural and supernatural seem equally interesting, and this is in part thanks to their dynamic.

The cinematography of the film also amplifies the understated air of this piece perfectly. Adorned with impersonal wide shots and neutral tones with a touch of light play throughout, Bustillo is painting the portrait of this Argentinian village as being vastly simple and unextraordinary, no matter what supernatural happenings occur beneath the veil. This combined with its solid pacing sets the film apart in its approach, keeping audiences interested while never getting too swept up by the glimpses of whimsy ever-present in the second half.

Chronicles of a Wandering Saint neither condemns divinity nor supports it, and this ultimately works to its advantage. This dark comedy has heart without being saccharine, wit without basking in slapstick, and cleverness without pretentiousness. By the culmination, it not only shows us what happens after death in this film’s world, but poses the weighted question “What is really important in life?” Explore Bustillo’s smart, tight, and contemplative film next time you feel patiently curious, and you’ll be glad that you did.

 -- Andrea Riley