How do you know if you’ve lived a good life? That’s a hard question to answer objectively because of the various cultural and social rules that come to define what “good” is. Do intentions really matter if someone gets hurt in the end? When we forgive but don’t forget, are we being our best selves? In the scope of all the things we’re told to believe in, how do we know what’s right or wrong against all of human history? With a giggle and a wink, writer/director Tomas Gomez Bustillo seeks to explore this question in his debut feature film Chronicles of a Wandering Saint, having its world premiere at SXSW 2023. When all is said and done, the good we do in the moment matters more than the good we seek to do long term.
In the town of Santa Rita, childless couple Rita and Norberto (Mónica Villa and Horacio Anibal Marassi) spend their time in split shifts: Rita working during the day at their local church and Norberto working nights at a bar. Where Norberto tries to fan the flames of their love with remembrances from their past, Rita is consumed with finding ways to be honored or appreciated by her fellow parishioners. Unbeknownst to Rita, her life is forever changed when she stumbles across a statue in the church’s basement which she believes to be a lost monument to town namesake Saint Rita, creating an opportunity for her to achieve the positive affirmation she’s been seeking. Funny thing about life, though, is it rarely goes as one plans.
Like the battle between one’s better and lesser selves, Bustillo’s film is split in twain, each side asking different questions that dovetail into the larger exploratory theme. The first portion a rumination about the everyday and how we can get so lost in the moment that we lose the bigger picture. We see this in the introduction to Rita, sitting in the church praying loud enough to be heard, but quiet enough for others to not necessarily understand the words. It’s an attention-seeking act that enables her, should the opportunity to come, to seem piteous while attempting to be pious. At first, this and other acts create a version of Rita where she wants to be congratulated, but not exalted. It’s about appreciation and, in the process of seeking that feeling, she misses out on all the things Norberto tries to do for her. Where Rita is uncomfortable with her state of being, Norberto tries to remind her of the beauty of their life together, even going so far as to try to recreate a meal they once shared 40 years ago on their honeymoon, down to the parkas and water spray. Bustillo doesn’t give the audience any more information, really, than this and yet, we can picture a version of this couple that were very much in love, young, and excited to be at some waterfall, but, more importantly, together. Now, however, Rita is distracted by the things she feels she lacks, making it harder for her to see what she has, like a partner who makes sure to reset her in bed when he comes home from work, who takes the money he makes and hides it away as an investment for their future, and who backs her no matter what. Some folks should be so lucky to have someone that says “yes and” to their nonsense rather than talking them out of it. Through Marassi’s performance we can see just how much Norberto cares for Rita in the way the actor lingers, the way he speakers, and the way he reacts to Villa’s Rita.
Then there is the second half which more directly answers the thesis of the film. With all the setup and subterfuge involved in the first portion, including the miracle Rita hopes to bring her acclaim, Bustillo turns it all around so as to have Rita confront the question “what does it all matter?” See, through Villa’s melancholic performance, there’s a general sense that Rita feels as though she’s lived an unimpressive, truly insignificant life, so the statue brings and opportunity to change how people see her, when, in truth, it’s about how she sees herself. This second half, executed with a wonderful whimsy and playfulness, is about Rita confronting the fact that she is the only one who sees herself this way, that the time we have matters not because of what we do, but who we spend it with. Especially with the grounded execution, this second half reminded me somewhat of both Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After Life (1998) and The Daniels’ Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022) in the way that Wandering Saint strips away ego to look at identity and self. The former is a film in which souls come to a weigh station and, through interviews, determine how they’ll spend their afterlives. In the latter, upon the death of the lead character, we learn that it was merely the film that an Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) of a different universe had starred in and was attending the premiere of. It’s from here that EEAAO shifts gears once more, sharpening the multiversal approach that makes the film quirky into a scalpel that cuts through how the self-loathing Evelyn feels about her life in order to help it not consume her daughter or push away her husband. Bustillo doesn’t employ sci-fi in his tale or utilize a character’s own memories to determine whether or not they were good while alive. Instead, the writer/director opens up Rita’s worldview in order to help her recognize the space outside of herself in order to see the love and adoration that already existed. Things she cultivated by just being herself.
In the end, the battle gives way and a winner is declared by way of an answer to the question: what is a good life? Without spoiling it for you, I read the answer within the 2002 bop by Spanish DJ/producer DJ Sammy and their remix of Bryan Adams’s “Heaven.” It’s used in a key moment of the film, one which speaks to the down-to-earth execution of the entire production, using small things, intimate things, in order to create connection and tell its story. The song is light and playful, included on a roadtrip mixtape in Rita’s car. Unless you’re me, few people own tapedecks anymore so the fact that Rita and Norberto still do implies that they haven’t gotten a new car in decades. That they still have the tape implies it’s been around 20 years since their last trip, a sad thought considering Norberto’s attempts to rally Rita into playfulness. The lyrics to the song speak of being young and in love and that heaven is with each other. Even with all of the religious iconography, the prayers and attempts to identify or create miracles, I think Bustillo is trying to tell us that to know if we’re living a good life is to recognize who around us loves us and the ways in which they demonstrate it. Or, in the words of Belinda Carlisle, “Heaven is a Place on Earth.”
To this, it may seem like Chronicles of a Wandering Saint is an 80-ish-minute cinematic version of The Good Place, and you’d be partially right. Bustillo doesn’t get into the ethics or moral issues of being human and the role that it plays in their heaven-sent or hell-bent fate, at least not on the larger scale. Instead, Wandering Saint utilizes Rita to ask us to consider whether or not we’re aware of the possibilities before us. Are we so blinded by our quest for miracles, for magic, that we miss the charmed moments before us? Put another way, Bustillo asks the audience to shift how they look at the here and now, taking away the quest for spiritual glory, and just be, to make sure that they’re not so focused on the end game, but to be present with the time we have.
Screened during SXSW 2023.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.