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Friday, April 25, 2014

Review: Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago

Throwing everything aside and embracing nature: It's the kind of change of lifestyle that you'd think would only exist in films like Into The Wild, but every year tens of thousands of Christians pilgrimage their way through a 500 mile journey by foot called the "Way of St. James" (aka the Camino de Santiago) where by the end they reach the city of Santiago de Compostela, a city that is home to the shrine of St. James the Great, an area of great holy significance to those of the faith. This activity has been occurring for well over 1200 years, with all the history that such a stretch of time entails.

Lydia Smith, a veteran of this trip, decided to produce and direct Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago, a documentary following six travelers (and a few more) on this spiritual sojourn. These individuals come from a number of different walks of life, including a Canadian man who has recently lost his wife, a Danish woman whose mother had not long before undergone life-saving surgery, and a brother and sister who have very different outlooks on life, spirituality, and how that should impact her young son, who also joins them on the path. 

Each participant that Smith focuses on has a interesting story to tell, and generally start off at ground zero in their metaphysical journey: bound down by backpacks, heavy walking shoes, and no idea of where they'll be staying when night falls. By the time they reach their final destination, they'll all find their way to spiritual absolution of a sort and a new understanding about themselves, whether they're walking for faith-based reasons or not.

In her conception of the film, Smith seeks to aim audience eyes into two distinct areas, the actual struggle of the pilgrims on the path with their individual tales and in a second throughline, the educational aspects of the trail itself. Long passages of Walking the Camino are interspersed with "talking head" moments from religious leaders discussing the historical importance of the path and the city that is the end destination, as well as the spiritual significance for those who take part. Both segments work well individually, but the documentary becomes a bit muddier when one considers how the actual message being conveyed on screen by the experts reflects on those pilgrims that we're following and investing in, beyond just a very simple "this leads to potential enlightenment".

But other than some potential thematic confusion, the film has a good deal to offer for those who have an attraction to the subject matter. Wide panoramic views of the Spanish landscape are perhaps the biggest drawing card, with picturesque vistas filling the screen that give the viewer a small taste of just what those who travel on this path get to experience first-hand. Additionally, the individual stories when taken one at a time are rather compelling, at least in certain cases. One particularly striking narrative strand follows a Brazilian-English woman named Sam who had recently lost her job and cast aside everything in her life that she saw as a negative factor leading her to the Camino. Watching Sam attempt to tackle her clinical depression and put her life back together, while realizing some truths about herself lead to perhaps the most refreshing and "real" moments of the film.

Unfortunately, not everyone gets equal time in front of the camera. While this may have been a consequence of timing or interview availability, it does give the investigation into some of our players a bit of a "surface level" quality. For example, one of the more fascinating focal points earlier in the proceedings regards Tatiana, the above mentioned mother who is traveling with her son and sibling. Her much harder-line spiritual stance conflicting with her brother's more care-free nature (and the way he rubs off on her son) made for thought-provoking viewing. Yet, by the time we hit the second half, they're almost nowhere to be found except in brief glimpses. A lost opportunity to sure, as sadly, Tomas the Portuguese man who decided to walk the camino instead of kiteboarding and his persistent foot blisters just don't pack the same punch.

In all, Walking the Camino is a project of passion that is worthy of attention, particularly in raising cultural awareness of this worldwide landmark. But as with many ventures of this nature, its scope of interest may be somewhat limited to the individual audience member's own thoughts on faith and spirituality, or if they yearn to take the awfully long, if beautiful, hike for themselves.

I give it a B-
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