San Sebastian Film Festival, In Competition

A rather extraordinary movie about an 11-year-old girl who falls in love while dying of cancer, "Camino" is raptly fascinating for over two hours, as Spanish director Javier Fesser intertwines melodrama, horror and animation in outrageous new ways. It is earmarked for media attention thanks to its biting criticism of the controversial Opus Dei movement and Catholic fundamentalism in general. Widely acclaimed at its San Sebastian bow, it has already been sold to Latin America.

Fesser's uncompromising script is not anti-religious, though it condemns the dehumanizing effects of religious extremism with great conviction. Negative fallout might be anticipated from conservative circles in the Catholic church, but if the Opus Dei put-downs in "The Da Vinci Code" didn't harm that film's boxoffice, they're unlikely to do much commercial damage here, either.

In its own way, "Camino" is every bit as over the top as Dan Brown's novel; it is just far more realistic in its depiction of life in an Opus Dei center and flagship hospital at the University of Navarra. Also, the film's insistence that it is based on a true story points the finger at the organization founded by now-canonized saint Josemaria Escriva, who appears in the film in the form of a gilded statue and whose book "El Camino - The Way" is referred to in the film's title.

Camino is also the name of the young protagonist (Nerea Camacho), a sugary-sweet, very pretty girl with big blue eyes who could have stepped out of a Walt Disney movie. Lo and behold, when Camino's class puts on a school play, scenes from Disney's 1950 "Cinderella" are excerpted. She would be ideal in the leading role opposite young Jesus (Lucas Manzano), the boy she has a crush on, as Prince Charming, but there is another fate awaiting her.

In a bold directing choice, film opens on its toughest scene: Camino's death in a hospital room, surrounded by priests, doctors, nurses and her pathologically religious mother. The scene is played straight and is very moving, unlike the effect it will have at the end of the film when everything is put in a different context.

Back to six months earlier, when Camino experiences sharp back pains, the first symptom of her illness. Her stern mom (Carmen Elias), a caricature of Catholic fervor, tells her to offer up her suffering for the poor children in the world. More compassionate is her loving but weak dad (Mariano Venancio), whom Camino identifies with the good-natured Mr. Meebles in Jack Kent's children's book.

Painfully absent from the family drama is her adored sister Nuria (Manuela Velles), who lives at an Opus Dei center in Pamplona as a virtual prisoner. The strict rules discourage family visits because they could distract her from God.

Camino's medical calvary is described in horrifying detail, including highly realistic shots of operations and torturous medical equipment. As her beautiful hair falls out from radiation treatment and wounds appear in her skull, the comparison to martyrdom becomes obvious. It is also apparent to the priests who refer the case to the Pope and hope, not in a miracle that will save the little girl's life, but in her death and rapid sainthood.

What they don't realize is that Camino, hovering between life and death, is using her imagination to elaborate a rich inner love story which becomes her real salvation and provides an unorthodox but satisfying happy ending to the story.

On his third film after "The Miracle of P. Tinto" and "Mortadelo & Filemon: The Big Adventure," Fesser once more offers a child's perspective on the adult world while making a big leap forward. Newcomer Camacho navigates some harrowing scenes with courage and bravura. In the unpleasant role of her mother, Elias brings a frightening portrait of religious fanaticism close to home. The top-flight tech work is inventive throughout, including a number of gaily animated scenes that are disconcertingly edited smack into the drama.

Production companies: Peliculas Pendelton, Mediapro.
Cast: Nerea Camacho, Carme Elias, Mariano Venancio, Manuela Velles, Lola Casamayor, Ana Gracia, Emilio Gavira, Lucas Manzano, Jordi Dauder, Pepe Ocio, Clauda Otero, Miriam Raya.
Director: Javier Fesser.
Screenwriters: Javier Fesser.
Executive producers: Luis Manso, Javier Mendez.
Producers: Javier Fesser, Luis Manso, Jaume Roures.
Director of photography: Alex Catalan.
Production designer: Cesar Macarron.
Music: Rafa Arnau, Mario Gosalvez.
Costumes: Tatiana Hernandez.
Editor: Javier Fesser.
Sales Agent: Wild Bunch, Paris.
143 minutes.