'Walking' Is An Emotional Journey Across The Camino
There are many films about major religious events, but not many about the interior feelings of religion or spirituality. The new documentary Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago is looking for that, and it comes pretty close.
By the end of Walking the Camino, I had such a range of feelings; I figured the movie must be doing something good.
The picture describes a pilgrimage that people have been making for about 1200 years. It begins in the town of St. Jean Pied de Pont in southwest France, crosses into Spain and staying inland follows the outline of the Bay of Biscay over 700 kilometers to the cathedral in Santiago de Campostela, a short distance from the Atlantic coast.
It’s a long walk.
The movie focuses on six pilgrims. They come from North America, Brazil, South Korea and several European countries. They talk to the filmmaker – about blisters on their feet, why they’re walking, what’s going on inside them. A widower from Canada does it to honor his wife; a young French woman with a son maybe 3 years old is conventionally Catholic, and unhappy with her brother who walks for less devout purpose.
Most pilgrims mention that their lives are disordered to some degree and they hope to shed useless worries, and maybe discover some measure of peace within themselves.
The pilgrimage is Christian in nature and tradition, but while most of the pilgrims indicate some connection to Christianity, that’s not so for all of them, and other people along the way speak in the kind of generalizations we label spiritual rather than religious.
I think the film itself is predominantly Christian. Director Lydia B. Smith films Catholic clerics along the route, who talk about the pilgrimage in Christian terms, and so do innkeepers and observers who live in the towns the pilgrims pass through. When Smith shows towns along the way, the local church dominates the images.
It’s important to keep in mind that the people in Walking the Camino do not represent a cross-section of humanity. No matter what motivates them to take this remarkable and very long walk, they are in fact pilgrims. They are people who want something in their lives to change and have made a fascinating commitment to that possibility. So, for me, one down side to the movie is that there is a lot – a lot! – of talk in the language of self-actualization. There’s talk of finding oneself, and of the inner camino. Pilgrims stay in hostels along the route – places that look elegant in a spare way, and there are communal meals. When someone exclaims “A feast!” another person responds “No, this is knowing how to live.”
It can get pretentious.
The big upside is that while Walking the Camino is not sophisticated filmmaking, the documentary is genuinely curious about the people in the film, and completely respectful. It is also beautiful almost beyond belief. The Camino looks like a delicate white ribbon running through miraculous countryside. The pilgrims walk along rolling hills beside magnificent farmland and through towns as picturesque as southern European towns can be. It’s postcard-perfect scenery, but without the kitsch.
You don’t see many tourists, just these pilgrims walking down the Camino, alone, in pairs and threes, then alone again.
Any physical effort like this pilgrimage tends to make people emotional, especially early in the film. A woman recounts how another pilgrim helped her carry something – and she says it as if this minor act were the greatest moment of kindness in human history. But as the film, and the pilgrimage go on, the histrionics get shaved away, and the movie lets you see that the pilgrimage does change people. They simplify; they become more generous in spirit toward other people and toward themselves. Who knows how permanent such changes may be, and Walking the Camino is smart enough not to look at what happens to these pilgrims after they’ve completed the journey, with one lovely exception.
It turns out that even 1200 years ago people knew that another 80 kilometers beyond the cathedral town of Santiago there’s another town, Finesterre, with a fabulous beach.