Modern pilgrims trek to Santiago in engrossing doc ‘Walking the Camino’
You may require a tube of Ben-Gay after you watch Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago. Not that it’s an ordeal to sit through this movie; far from it. Filmmaker Lydia B. Smith has crafted an engrossing documentary about the fabled medieval pilgrimage route from southern France across northern Spain to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, and the international mix of modern-day pilgrims who choose to follow “the way.”
But the pilgrimage itself is so enormous, and Smith so skillfully inserts the viewer into every twist and turn of the 500-mile, 35-day trek that the audience starts to feel as physically exhausted as the participants. Happily, as the individual stories play out onscreen, we also begin to share at least an inkling of the particular brand of madness and exaltation that drives these pilgrims on to achieve their physical, mental, and/or spiritual goals.
Once a Roman trade route to the sea, the Camino de Santiago (“the Way of St. James”) was rebooted as a Christian pilgrimage site after the construction of a shrine to the apostle, St. James, in the 9th Century, where the 11th Century Romanesque cathedral now stands. Filmmaker Smith walked the entire camino in the spring of 2008, gaining a sense not only of the route itself—much of it through small, stone rural villages and lush green valleys—but also of the community of hikers who follow it and their disparate reasons.
Few of the latter-day pilgrims who populate Smith’s film have overtly Christian motives. Frenchwoman Tatiana cites wanting to feel “more of a sense of God” along the route, a goal complicated by the active three-year-old son she pushes in a stroller most of the way, and her laid-back brother, Alexis, a non-believer, whom she brings along as co-kid-wrangler. Spry Canadian septuagenarian Jack is a retired Episcopal priest, but he’s there to support his longtime friend, Wayne, who’s on a personal symbolic quest to honor his beloved late wife, close the door on the past, and march into the future.
Like many of the pilgrims, Misa, from Denmark, considers herself “spiritual, but not religious.” A fast walker who welcomes physical challenges, she’s looking forward to solitude along the way, to reconnect with herself—until she meets William, a younger Canadian man who’s walking the route to stay in shape. Spaniard Tòmas is also attracted to the extreme-sport aspect of the walk; he almost went kite-surfing instead, but decided walking the camino would be more of a challenge. Plagued with injuries from the outset, he determines to tough it out.
Injury-riddled, too, is the American, Annie, battling constant pain in her legs. Embarrassed that “everybody is passing me!”—even the seniors—she falls off the others’ pace by about two days while traveling between the hostels and “albergues” (shelters) set up for the pilgrims along the route, and wonders if she’ll be able to finish. But the injuries are internal for Sam, a vibrant thirtysomething Brazilian woman fleeing upheaval in her personal life who’s hoping the experience will restore her sense of harmony with life.
The road takes these pilgrims through fog, rain, mud, and relentless sun, along goat trails up and down mountains, over streams, and alongside busy highways. Blistered feet, tendonitis, and aching ankles and knees turn the journey into an endurance test. Tempers flare, romance blossoms, friendships are forged or tested, and simple acts of kindness from strangers turn into unforgettable epiphanies. (Humor abounds as well, like the symphony of road-weary snoring that fills the hostels at night.)
Yet the rewards are substantial, not only in terms of physical accomplishment, but in insights gleaned along the way. On the road, there are “no hair dryers, no make-up,” notes one woman on the trek. “You transform into yourself.” Addressing the spiritual aspect of the trek, Tòmas notes, “If it changes you, it is in and of itself spiritual.” Then he offers a candid summation of the eternal attraction of the camino, as “an intermission in our real caminos—which is our lives.” Smith’s film will appeal to anyone who has ever yearned to take a time-out from real life and gain some new perspective.
WALKING THE CAMINO: SIX WAYS TO SANTIAGO ★ ★ ★ (out of four) A film by Lydia B. Smith. (Not rated) 84 minutes.