Six travelers traverse hundreds of miles along Spain’s famed Camino de Santiago by foot in Lydia B. Smith’s genial documentary, which gradually reveals itself as part travelogue and part spiritual quest. After a DIY tour playing theaters in the US and Canada, the film opens this weekend in limited release and seems likely to draw attention from Christian devotees and travel buffs alike.
The Camino is an ancient pilgrim route that leads from a variety of European departure points to Santiago de Compostela and the Catholic cathedral where the faithful believe the remains of the Apostle James, the patron saint of Spain, are buried. Smith focuses on the Camino Frances, the most common route to Santiago as it crosses the northern span of the Iberian Peninsula from its starting point in southwestern France. Writer-director Emilio Estevez depicted the same journey in his 2010 narrative film The Way, which featured his father Martin Sheen making a reluctant pilgrimage on the Camino.
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For over 1,000 years pilgrims and seekers of all kinds have attempted the 500-mile route, which utilizes unpaved roads, hiking paths and narrow tracks for most of the distance, except where it passes through small towns and the major cities of Pamplona, Leon and Burgos enroute to Santiago. Among the tens of thousands who make the journey every year, Smith selects a half-dozen of varying interest, including Tomas Moreno, a carefree 30-ish Portuguese business professional who hits the Camino on a whim and discovers he’s almost completely unprepared for the physical rigors of the experience. A 65-year-old Canadian retiree, Wayne Emde is undertaking the trek to honor his recently deceased wife, accompanied by his friend Jack Greenhalgh, an Episcopal priest. American Annie O’Neill, a middle-aged Los Angeles resident, is attracted to the challenge for religious and personal reasons, only to learn that her own physical limitations throw completion of the Camino into recurring doubt.
Walking up to six hours and 15 miles a day with backpacks, gear and light provisions, the travelers make their way between trailside lodges where they can spend the night or rest up for a few days before their next section of the route. The communal lodgings are simple but comfortable, although everyone must contend with the unpredictability of sharing close quarters with strangers, who may snore loudly and incessantly or natter on about their personal concerns with disconcerting self-absorption.
While trekkers’ experience of “the way” may unfold as a distillation of the challenges they face in their everyday lives, it also discloses moments of transcendence and simple joy. Although Smith refers to them as “pilgrims,” these seekers come from a wide variety of backgrounds, not all of them religious, and share a common core motivation to strip their lives down to bare essentials, if only for the four-six weeks it takes to cross the route by foot, sometimes in seriously inclement weather.
Smith, a well-seasoned producer and cinematographer who walked the Camino herself in 2008, infuses the film with an intrinsic appreciation of the tribulations involved, making for an assured and charismatic feature documentary debut, while demonstrating an abiding understanding for the aspirations of travelers and a revelatory appreciation for Galicia’s varied landscapes.
This perceptive celebration of place, articulated in shots of sun-dappled rural vistas and ancient, robust settlements, also expresses a distinctly Spanish appreciation that Smith shares for the nation’s agrarian patrimony and its central position in the spiritual life of European Christians. Smith and her adept, compact filmmaking team demonstrate that the rigors of the Camino are really about engaging a conversation between pilgrims’ personal experiences and the majestic landscape that transforms so many lives.
Production company: Future Educational Films
Director: Lydia B. Smith
Producers: Lydia B. Smith, Sally Bentley
Executive Producer: Jacoba “Coby” Atlas
Director of photography: Pedro Valenzuela
Editor: Beth K. Segal
Music: JJ McGeehan
No rating, 84 minutes