Chronicles of a Wandering Saint: Director Tomás Gómez Bustillo on Dogs, Miracles, and Divine Punishment

From bleeding statues to dancing suns that suddenly bring darkness at midday, the Catholic faith is filled with stories of miracles. But to be considered miraculous, they must pass a series of rigorous tests, during which most events are proven false. The devout Rita Lopez (Mónica Villa), protagonist of Tomás Gómez Bustillo’s La guerre de Miracula, Chronicles of a Wandering SaintShe spends her days trying to serve the local church, but realizes that nothing can pave the way to heaven faster than performing miracles herself, so she enlists the help of her husband, Norberto (Horacio Marassi), in restoring a statue that may have mystical powers.

In his feature debut, director Gómez Bustillo has created a world where the everyday and the sacred partner in a waltz that moves from the sublime to the absurd. With loving irreverence, he pays tribute to the small towns that define the cultural richness of countries like his native Argentina, where talking to ghosts is as common as buying milk at the market, and where dogs come every day to pay their respects, as if to pay their respects at the temple.

The director creates breathtaking tableaux, made all the more captivating by the humor they infuse; Rita watches their absurd romance unfold from her neighbor’s window, combining Hitchcock’s mischief with Roy Andersson’s melancholy. We spoke to Gómez Bustillo about his work at the legendary villa, film as a sacred creative act, and how to erase Eurodance’s catchy tunes.

The Film Stage: I have to ask you the most important spiritual question of all time: Can you explain why dogs are so attracted to church?

Tomas Gomez Bustillo: Finally someone asked me that. [Laughs] Can you believe it? I think it’s because the floor is cold. When the summer gets hot, the majolica tiles stay cold and are like a refuge for them. Have you ever experienced this?

I read that you grew up in Argentina, El Salvador, and Costa Rica. I grew up in Honduras, next to El Salvador, and every church had dogs trying to sneak in or napping on the front porch. There were also dogs in Holy Week processions.

I’ve never seen that before. I don’t have much experience going to queues.

In my country, we have a saying: “You are more lost than a dog in a queue.”

That’s so cool, I’m gonna steal it.

But I don’t think they’re really lost: they seem interested in Catholic ritual, there are plenty of paintings of saints with dogs, and even Godard sees a connection between dogs and God. Say goodbye to language.

I read a lot of quotes about how humans don’t deserve to own dogs. I wrote most of the scenes in the film with dogs after adopting one from a shelter in Los Angeles. Many scenes were born out of my love for puppies.

You said you wanted to make a movie that grandmothers could enjoy. Have you seen it yet?

Unfortunately, my grandma passed away a few years ago. She lived across the street from the cinema, so I thought about her a lot. I used to tell her that one day I would have the movie released, and she would just have to walk across the street and reserve a seat. But I felt her presence while I was making this film. I can’t explain it, but I felt a breath of life from the other side. I almost dedicated the film to her, but I felt that would be shortsighted. But she knows that the film is partially dedicated to her.

I am so sorry about your grandmother. I was very close to my paternal grandmother and was amazed when I read about St. Rita and learned that her stigmata gave off the scent of roses. I feel like our ancestors visit us sometimes and whenever I feel that she is close, I can smell the roses.

That’s amazing. My brother associates my grandma with hummingbirds, and his yard is always full of them. A lot of people associate objects with people who have passed away, but I don’t have any physical objects that I associate with my grandma. When I talk to my grandma, it’s like I’m talking to the stars. But this is really interesting. It’s like a family Easter egg. When Kike talks about women in the movie, I used my grandma’s name. It’s a wink to my grandma.

Tomas Gomez Bustillo

Growing up in Latin America, I remember lots of ghost stories. Headless priests roaming at night, horseless carriages dragging you to hell, all these stories gave me nightmares as a child. Have you heard any stories that still haunt you to this day?

My grandmother was not as religious as the characters in the film, and going to mass was a cultural thing to do. But my parents were very religious, and I remember a priest (from Central America) who was like a prophet of the end times. He said that if you did anything bad, you would suffer in the flames of hell for centuries. Every time I told a lie, I would think about burning in the flames for all eternity, and every time I committed a carnal sin, I would think about hammering a nail into Jesus’ cross. Luckily, I no longer have that kind of faith, but it frightened me as a child.

For example, I was scared of those orbs that would come towards me and tell me that someone was about to die.

Wow, that must have been part of your local folklore. I would have loved to hear about it. Sounds interesting, but also scary.

Well, let me state my point as a film fan: when you combine ghosts, orbs, etc., it’s hard not to think of film as a medium for light-created ghosts.

I love to ramble on about these things, but yes, the whole film is a love letter to cinema. As an audience member, you are a ghost peeking into different stories, peering through people’s windows with the movie screen as your window. You get to observe other people’s lives without intruding. At least, that’s the illusion that the observer isn’t involved, although of course you are. The same thing happens in the film. When Rita is peering through people’s windows or visiting people’s homes, it’s all a testament to the greatness of cinema.

I love that when Rita sneezes, everyone sneezes. When you cough in a dark screening room, it feels like you’re giving permission for everyone else to cough, too. I hope it doesn’t sound corny, but I can’t think of anything more miraculous than making a movie. You’re the filmmaker, so it goes without saying how many conditions have to come together for the movie to be made. But once you make this miracle and put it out there, it seems like everyone else’s job is to debunk it and point out why it’s not a miracle.

Rita realizes that the statue she found may not be the miracle she needs, and as a screenwriter, she wonders what she would do if something like this happened to her: She would make a movie! So she decides to make her own miracle by directing. When they’re rehearsing the unveiling of the big statue, she even yells “Action!” to Norbert. She repaints the statue, finds new props, thinks about the set. It was funny to me how easy it was for Rita to write those scenes, because she’s directing a movie of herself as a saint. I make the movie, she makes the miracle. They are similar.

There are a lot of scenes like that in the movie. You mentioned the sneeze, and in the closest shot in the movie she sneezes. That’s because the ghost of the camera, that is, us, the audience, is so close to her as a character. There were a lot of scenes like that in the movie. I’m not trying to be Kubrick, I’m just a movie nerd.

You’ve also worked with saints in Argentine cinema. How did you make sure, working with Mónica, that you didn’t get into a situation where you were too pious and would force her to have the kind of awful Facebook profile picture that our parents have?

It’s not easy, but you’ll find a balance along the way.. As a first-time director, you go from respecting the other person too much at first, to anxiety creeping in and wondering if you are pushing too hard, to finally hitting that balance where trust in each other is the most important thing. I lost that respect that creates distance and started to respect her based on what a great team player she is. I think she is one of the most important collaborators I have ever had in my life. We were both comfortable and let her see where the movie was going. She was the most dedicated person. I remember one time we were up at 5am shooting, and we were all freezing to death, and the only person who didn’t complain was Monica, even though she was soaking wet on the seventh take.

Among other things, the film depicts the deep love her husband has for her and how she is so focused on creating this miracle that she misses out on all the beautiful things in life. Was this a reminder for the future Tomas to not let work take over everything else in life?

I didn’t think about a career, because I didn’t have one when I wrote the script, but I did think about filmmaking and the obsession with “achieving something.” Everything goes by so quickly, everything builds. This week you premiere your movie, next week you premiere another one. No one will remember your movie in three years, and even less in 100 years. I had to remind myself, because it’s so easy to forget, because we have such a short time here.

What if aliens were watching your movie 1000 years from now?

… I hope they invent something better than my film. [Laughs]

Let’s say that’s not the case. So unless you’re super obsessive and you’re constantly repeating the director’s cut, movies are just like life, impossible to change. How do you deal with angles, shots, and cuts that you don’t like? Are they going to haunt you forever?

You get to a point where it doesn’t matter anymore. I accept the film for what it is. We finished the film in September 2022 and submitted it to three major film festivals, all of which rejected it. I understood that this meant the film would not be successful at all, so instead of dwelling on this, I created a kind of ritual where I just thanked the film for what it was, thanked it for all it had taught me, told it that I didn’t need to do anything else with it, and let it go. I started writing the script for my next film. A week later, we were at SXSW, and a myriad of events happened that led to me being here telling you about the film.

Of course, I would do things differently now. But I wouldn’t make the same movie. Back then, I made the movie I wanted to make, with the resources I had and my passion for that particular story. I wouldn’t make that movie now. So once I do the picture lock, I’m going to let it go, or it’s going to leave a scar. The scars aren’t going to become scars.

Like the permanent stigmata of St. Rita.

that’s right.

Speaking of which, how can you get DJ Sammy’s “Heaven” out of your head after seeing the movie?

There’s absolutely nothing you can do about it. I chose this song because I can’t get it out of my head. When was this released? 2004? 2005?

I used to dance to this song at every rave I went to in 2004…

Me too! I couldn’t believe I remembered it after 20 years. That’s why it was supposed to be in the movie. I’m sorry but I can’t make you forget “Heaven” either myself or anyone you pray to.

Chronicles of a Wandering Saint the current Limited release.

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