By M. Sellers Johnson.

Here’s a way to use VFX that feels like magical realism. Like the literature that I had read that uses fantastical elements but doesn’t go into fantasy.”

Tomás Gómez Bustillo

Set in a rural Argentine village, Chronicles of a Wandering Saint is a darkly comic tale of aspired sainthood, devotion, and the magic of everyday life. The story follows the elderly Rita, who seemingly discovers the famed Santa Rita statue, which she leverages to elevate her self-conscious stature among her pious peers. With the support of her reassuring husband Norberto (the emotional crux of the film), her scheme takes her on a truly magical journey, where she comes to discover her spiritual center in the most unexpected, yet charming of places.

Chronicles of a Wandering Saint is a luminous fable that upends traditional conceptions of spirituality, to attend to the natural beauty and spiritual simplicity of quotidian life. 

The measured quality of the film is frequently punctuated by humorous moments of irony, and beautiful reflections of simplicity. The magical realism of the film also yields thoughtful and light-hearted musings on the nature of loneliness, personal connections, and life after death. Through narrative and cinematic traditions of Latin American magic realism, this independent Argentine film crafts a beautiful and humorous story, that balances tones of absurdity, profundity, mundanity, and magic.

In the following interview, AFI graduate and writer-director Tomás Gómez Bustillo, details insights into his independent feature debut, his co-founded production company Plenty Good, and his work with the famous cult classic Argentine actor, Mónica Villa.

M. Sellers Johnson: Chronicles of a Wandering Saint, celebrates, as you say, “magic in the mundane.” It is “a ghost story that celebrates the living.” How do these meanings figure into the concepts and themes of this project?

Tomás Gómez Bustillo: You know, it’s always hard to answer something like that because once the film is finished and released the themes become more apparent. But it’s not like in the writing process I sit down and say “You know what? I’m going to make a ghost story that celebrates the living.” It’s this exploration where usually the first couple of drafts are more subconscious. Maybe it’s something I might be going through or trying to wrap my head around. Something I may be grappling with personally, in life, or existentially. Eventually, that ends up on the page where I realize, “Oh, that’s what it is, it’s a ghost story, but it’s also about life.”

MJ: The presence of light plays an integral part in the story: It floods in through doorways and windows; Norberto seems to bless Rita as he shines his phone light over her, during his late return home each night; and, of course, light signifies the promise of religious ascension. What does this use of light mean for you?

TB: I’ve always been fascinated with light. That seems silly to have to say or clarify that, but the truth is that one of the first words I learned was la luz, or the light. As a little kid, I would go crazy turning on and off the switch and say, “La luz, la luz!”  Say, “Look at this, look at this!” I just thought it was so fascinating how light would change in a space. And for this, one of the first images that popped into my mind was someone made of light. A figure completely made of light, in the dark. So that contrast was the first thing that drew me to the story. Playing with light as a storytelling device and emotional device. Then once I started working with the script and trying to layer that within the film, I wanted to try and also challenge the typical associations that we have with light. Like, light—good, dark—bad. Much of the movie tries to, I think, step aside from a very binary understanding of what is good and what is bad; what is heaven, what is hell? What belongs here and what doesn’t belong here? I wanted to do the same thing with light. So, in some way, maybe having her become full of light didn’t necessarily mean what she always thought it would mean. Or, a town that is completely dark at night isn’t necessarily scary; it’s actually when it’s at its most beautiful. Those were some of the things I was the most intrigued by, challenging that traditional duality of light and dark.   

MJ: How did your team utilize those special effects onscreen?

TB: We had a fantastic team. It really starts with having a team with a strong VFX background and we had a VFX supervisor, Slava Ponomarev, who has worked with a lot of big-budget and franchise kind of movies. So, the first passes were really about bringing it down from sci-fi to magic realism. We knew going in that we wanted a very grounded take on the effects and not a very bombastic thing that is very apparent in other such VFX-heavy films. A very big reference for the way that VFX was used was Carlos Reygadas’ film Post Tenebras Lux. I absolutely love that film, and it has one of the best opening sequences that I’ve ever seen. It’s just so haunting and cinematic. I thought, “Wow, here’s a way to use VFX that feels like magical realism. Like the literature that I had read that uses fantastical elements but doesn’t go into fantasy.” It was our intention to do the same thing with VFX.

MJ: Another noticeable formal attribute of the film is the use of static shots. This appears throughout the film, except in one sequence where Norberto is first seen playing guitar. A tracking shot pulls away from him, then cuts to the old piano in the chapel, tracking in. What does this moment signify within the story?

TB: That’s great, I think you’re the first person to ask specifically about that. And, you know, I remember having an explanation for it, but I would say that really some things like that come intuitively. This is a film that also sets up a lot of rules in the visual language. With our cinematographer, we worked a lot to have a set of rules to keep it very cohesive. But, what’s the point of creating rules if you don’t have the opportunity to break them a little bit? Ultimately, what I’m trying to do with movies is what I love feeling as a moviegoer. Which is, I love it when the film takes me by the hand, for a while, and then at some point it lets go of my hand and then I get to fly on my own. That’s one of my favorite parts of experiencing films, as a cinephile. So, those kinds of decisions go in mind with trying to create that kind of experience for a viewer. It was also my first film, so even if I didn’t get it, I’m going to keep trying because that’s what I love feeling when I go to the movies. So, hopefully, one day I can elicit that as well.

MJ: Halfway through the film, the narrative takes an unexpected turn. The dramatic actions that surround Rita are set to DJ Sammy’s cover of Bryan Adams’ “Heaven,” creating a moment of dark comedy, but the tone in this sequence is also balanced by a contemplative piano score. Talk to us about the credit sequence and the tonality of the film.

TB: For me, I really think that tone is the most important thing in making and experiencing films. A lot of people might say the opposite, and I think that’s fun; to be able to have these kinds of debates. But, for me, the tone is more important than the story. I think that story serves tone. That’s a hot take, and a lot of people that I love, and respect, will feel the opposite and it’s great to have that debate. I think that movies are more like dreams, where logic can and should be defied. Realism, story logic, and cause and effect are all ways to lull the viewer into a sense of comfort. So, tone is this multidimensional tool that you experience as a viewer and that you have as a filmmaker. It’s beautiful when there are multiple tones within a film, but it still remains cohesive. In Chronicles of a Wandering Saint, it was about making a film that could be magical, mysterious, and playful, at the same time. And holding those three things, as a tone, and in a cohesive way. That’s where the credits really have something to do with that, as one of the variations on that tone.

Something I always ask myself when I’m writing (which I’m doing right now) is ‘What is the worst thing that can happen to this character, specifically?’ In a stakes kind of way, they could die or they could lose a loved one. But it’s tailor-made to one’s specific flaws, needs, and specific pettiness. That’s where I have a lot of fun writing….”

MJ: Dramatic irony plays an important role in the film, from Rita’s dismissiveness towards the dog, Norberto’s selfless actions, and the commerciality of sainthood, itself. How do these comedic aspects of your film play into the larger moral of the story?

TB: Playful was one of the key words in the tone, right? I knew that I wanted playful, not in the slapstick or broad humor kind of way. But a sense of playfulness in the set pieces and the sequences themselves. A lot of the comedy hinges on physical comedy, absurdism, and some irony, as well. That’s where some of my influences come out. Like, I love Jacques Tati and others like Aki Kaurismaki or Roy Andersson. These are some of the comedic influences that I’m pulling from to try and bring a little bit of truth to the comedy. Like, of course, this would happen because I experience this kind of thing all the time.

MJ: Rita tries to curate her pious image and manifest miracles, whereas Norberto appreciates the beauty of everyday life. And yet, their story seems to come full circle, no?

TB: Something I always ask myself when I’m writing (which I’m doing right now) is “What is the worst thing that can happen to this character, specifically?” In a stakes kind of way, they could die or they could lose a loved one. But it’s tailor-made to one’s specific flaws, needs, and specific pettiness. That’s where I have a lot of fun writing and directing, by letting actors fill the story in with their humanity and expertise, towards a lot of the questions that are initiated.

MJ: The final sequence of the film is quite beautiful. The concluding moments seem to tease where Rita’s wandering “sainthood” will lead her. To heaven, the statue, the piano? The final image warmly suggests her arc away from selfish measures. In the end, the connection to Norberto seems to be affirmed.  

TB: I think so. And, you know, that’s the beauty of props, they say a lot about a character and what they want. The guitar is like a hero prop. In the case of Norberto, it helps to identify who he is, and who he wants to be. That fact that he sounds terrible at playing it. It elicits a lot of emotions just from the way that he interacts with it. And ultimately the movie is trying to instill how certain props are so important that they become characters in their own way.

MJ: It must have been a privilege to work with Mónica Villa, who has starred in notable Argentinian cult films. What can you say about working with her and Horacio Marassi?

TB: Monica was such an incredible find for us. Our DP had gone to school with her son. So, when I showed him the script he said, “I think that Monica would amazing for this.” She just has this amazing breadth of experience. She’s very generous as an actor. She very easily could have not given me a lot of the trust that she gave me, because I’m a first-time director. I felt I hadn’t earned it or proven it yet. Instead, she chose to give me all of her trust. And it’s amazing to work with somebody who has that level of craftsmanship, generosity, and commitment. I have to say that she was the most committed person on that set. When it was 5 AM and everyone was ready to go home, she braved cold and water and whatever it took to get the take right, no matter how many it took. I just feel so incredibly grateful to have worked with her. And equally with Horacio who is obviously less legendary than Monica because she is so iconic. I hope that this movie elevates his status because I think that he’s an incredible actor. He elicits such empathy, right away, in such a fun and charismatic way that feels almost accidental. It’s really just a huge gift, from him, from his work and his talent. To have him on camera, in the movie, giving all of that was just great.

MJ: What might we expect from Plenty Good, going forward?

TB: With this production company that I have with my friends, Plenty Good, we are coming out with a new movie (Press Your Luck), hopefully this year. We’ll see where we end up launching it. It’s directed by my dear friend Samir Oliveros, and stars Paul Walter Hauser. It has an absolutely incredible cast. So, be on the lookout for that and other projects that we have in the works. From writer-directors in the company and with the company, as well.

M. Sellers Johnson is an independent scholar and editor whose research interests include French art cinema, transnationalism, historiography, and aesthetics. He received his MA from Te Herenga Waka (Victoria University of Wellington) in 2021 and his BA at the University of North Carolina Wilmington in 2018. His work has appeared in Afterimage, Film International, Film Quarterly, Media Peripheries, Mise-en-scène, Offscreen, and sabah ülkesi, among other outlets. He is the founding Citation Ethics Editor for Film Matters, and the current Book Reviews Editor for New Review of Film and Television Studies.

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