Walking the Camino: Hey, life really IS a journey.
  • Walking the Camino: Hey, life really IS a journey.
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Near the end of Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago — Lydia Smith’s finely observed documentary about travelers along Spain’s 500-mile pilgrim trail, the Camino de Santiago — one of the pilgrims makes a rare misstep into cliché and reminds the viewer that life itself is a journey, much like the Camino. But even then, there is art in the platitude: he’s arguing that this particular journey is an intermission from the larger trek from birth to death.

The walk, while frequently meditative, is not quite a retreat: shared experience with fellow travelers seems integral to the experience presented here. And despite the pastoral vistas, it’s not transcendent in the way that aesthetic experience can be. Rather, the Camino provides our seven subjects with a shift in perspective, a slowing down, a break from the necessity of doing anything but walking, and a chance, in the words of one pilgrim, to leave behind “the need to be something other than what I am.”

The walk ends at a church and includes stops at numerous abbeys — an inevitable dash of Christianity, given the route’s history. Also, many of the trappings of religious experience are on display: the stripping away of material goods, the contemplation of personal failings, and happily, the compassion for one’s neighbor that Jesus mentioned once or twice. (When a stranger carries Angeleno Annie’s backpack because she is suffering, she marvels, “I don’t think I’ve ever been that kind to anyone. I was humbled.”) But the journey that the film captures is much more personal than spiritual, even as the two almost inevitably get conflated, particularly in the case of those who are already religious. (One observer notes, “You will not find Him unless you take Him with you.”)

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Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago ***

It’s important to note that the documentary is much more concerned with the pilgrims/travelers than it is with the Camino itself. It will tell you that Christians used to walk the trail as a form of penance in the Middle Ages, ending their journey at the alleged tomb of the apostle James. It won’t tell you that before that, the trail served pagans as they walked a little further on to the sea for their own sort of spiritual experience. And it doesn’t need to tell you this because the people are the point, not the road. Also because these days, the pagans and Christians are walking side by side. Their reasons are various, and so are their ultimate experiences. What’s common is that none of the seven people Smith follows expresses regret or disappointment at the end of the road.

Besides the aforementioned Annie, Smith follows Tomás, a young man looking for a physical challenge; Wayne and Jack, a widower and the Episcopal priest who presided at the funeral; Misa, a young woman who thinks she needs some time alone; Sam, a Brazilian woman who has lost nearly everything; and Tatiana, the only one doing the walk explicitly “for God” (for company, she has her young son and her atheist brother). Some encounter challenges, some encounter surprises, and one or two walk their way into epiphanies under the watch of Smith’s sympathetic eye.

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