Tomás Gómez Bustillo’s charming, intelligent Chronicles of a Wandering Saint is a natural follow-up to the two short films for which he is known: Soy Buenos Aires (a strange, picaresque rags-to-riches tale) and Museum of Fleeting Wonders (a collection of dramatized paranormal happenings). In Chronicles, as in the two short films, he is primarily concerned with spiritual, ethical, and religious contrasts; scenarios in which miracles are mixed with coincidences, faith with rationality, and boredom with inspiration. But that is where the comparisons end; for Chronicles is in every way a more serious, controlled, and moving work of art, which stands with the very best of contemporary Argentine cinema.

The plot centers on an elderly janitor, Rita, who discovers what she thinks is the sacred statue of Rita of Cascia that disappeared from the town some thirty years ago. After smuggling it back to her house, she asks the local priest whether it is a sign from God. “This is not a sign,” he says, “it is a miracle!” Later that evening, while staring, awe-struck, at the statue, she notices something curious: her Rita is clutching a crown of thorns, not a crucifix. The thing is a terrible fake. Devastated, she seeks consolation from her sweetheart husband, Norberto, who convinces her to go through with the ruse anyway. “It could still be a miracle,” he tells her, “it’s all a matter of perspective…If you want it to be a miracle, then it is.” And so, the next day, the couple make plans for the grand unveiling, which will involve a slightly altered statue, some bad acting, and a garland of daisies.

One cannot say much more about the plot without giving away its best jokes and surprises. It is just as well, then, that the film’s major themes and atmospheric progressions largely depend on non-narrative elements, the chief of them being the use of light. Indeed, nearly every shot contains some form of emanation, usually from a window, but also from phone screens, streetlights, bedside lamps, doorways, halos, camera flashes, and, at the film’s close, from an aurora that surrounds those who are soon to go to heaven (an inversion of the Argentine myth of luz mala). The main purpose of these emanations is to (literally) foreshadow Rita’s eventual fate, but they also have many secondary functions. The pitiful halos and stubby devil horns, for example, introduce an air of camp to the presentation, in the manner of O Auto da Compadecida; and the bright beams create striking chiaroscuros which add to the faux-religious imagery.

Iconographic ironies, absurdities, and ambiguities abound. Consider, for instance, the opening scene, in which three women enter a church and see Rita kneeling in prayer, her face and hands illuminated by a shaft of light. To them, the scene is divine; and yet little do they know that Rita has been shuffling along the pew, chasing the shaft of light, so as to be ‘in position’ when they come in. Or consider the statue which Rita and Norberto tamper with: it has, of course, a religious symbolism, but also a commercial cheapness, an ulterior motive (to trick the townsfolk), and thus a moral versatility that subverts its holier aspects. Or consider the painterly interiors, which, with their cracks, crevices, and chipped walls, look more like Renaissance frescoes than modern color photographs, thus bestowing on those who feature in them all the gravitas of that spiritual and artistic tradition, if only ironically.

The broader theme of these playful tricks and double meanings is the human need for fictions—those poetic lies which are somehow able to circumvent the dullness and meaninglessness of the world, to bring it into spiritual unity. In an early scene Norberto describes two pairs of jeans on a clothesline as “dancing.” “What are you showing me?” asks Rita, “The wind?” “Right. Could be.” Equally evocative is a later scene in which we find out that the blinking of a light is due not to an electrical fault but to the stirrings of a trapped spirit. Upon being asked whether all lights are likewise occupied, the spirit laughingly replies, “No, no…Let’s not get carried away.” The film’s metaphysic thus turns on a splendid counterpoint: it is sympathetic towards certain religious rites and ideas (spirits, judgement day, reincarnation, canonization, heaven, hell), but these generalities are continually humanized so that they contain all the defects, trivialities, contradictions, malfunctions, and bureaucracy of society. Before you enter the kingdom of heaven, for example, you must choose between the Express Package and the Premium Package, and listen to the terms and conditions.

This particular strain of dark, ironic, religious humor goes as far back as Kafka—most notably to his short story “Poseidon,” which presents the Olympian as a bored, overburdened office clerk who never has any time to go swimming—and perhaps as far back as Kierkegaard, albeit to a lesser degree. But Bustillo’s film does not leave one feeling cold in the way that Kafka’s creepy stories so often do. Partly because Rita and Norberto are far more personable than Kafka’s faceless protagonists; but mostly because Bustillo is less worried about heaping on the sentiment. After all the funny games, it is to the dramatic idiom that he returns, to pathos and catharsis, and his conclusions are less cynical, less damning of the world as a result. His notion of life after death, for example, begins in the Christian tradition but later gives way, rather elegantly, to a deeper humanism: heaven is a sham, and the freed spirit is just as lonely as its corporeal host; but the dead can still live on, in those moments when the past emerges beautifully in the present, like warm light falling on an empty bed.

Chronicles of a Wandering Saint opens in theaters on June 28.

Grade: A-

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