'Walking the Camino' follows spiritual journeys along the road to Compostel

'Camino' centers on groups of hikers who make the 500-mile trek to the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

By , Film critic

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    Walkers make the 500-mile pilgrimage from the French border to the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, Spain.
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“When we feel in harmony with nature we feel better,” says a Spanish cleric in “Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago,” a documentary about the 500-mile pilgrimage to the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela housing a shrine to the apostle St. James. As the vast and glorious landscapes unfold before our eyes, it’s difficult to disagree. But then again, it’s easy to feel this way when you’re not actually wearing out your feet and shins.

The Camino pilgrimage began in the Middle Ages. It’s a Christian ritual, open to all faiths, or none, for those seeking spiritual solace. Oregon filmmaker Lydia B. Smith undertook the trek in 2008 and, because she says it transformed her life, returned to film the odyssey, focusing on six disparate groups of hikers. The starting point is on the French border with Spain, at the marvelously named St. Jean Pied de Port. At an average rate of about six miles a day, the pilgrimage can take more than a month to complete. This is not a journey for the fainthearted – or faint-footed. (It was also the basis for the neglected 2010 Martin Sheen movie “The Way.”)

Smith might have done better to focus on fewer participants, especially since some of them, like Annie, an American woman with a self-professed competitive streak, seem to spend most of their time complaining about their feet. (Annie perpetually lags behind the others and gripes, “What did they have for breakfast?”) But the pileup of pilgrims does reinforce the idea that there are many reasons, not all of them religious, for setting out on the journey.

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Tatiana, for example, a young French woman, is a devout Christian, but her tag-along brother, who “likes to party,” is not. She says, “When you are walking I think you love more and more God.” She brings, complete with stroller, her 3-year-old son, Cyrian, a move that is either the height of devotion or the height of madness. (Maybe a little of both – Cyrian literally takes it all in stride.)

Tómas, from Portugal, doesn’t last a day before blisters intrude, but he soldiers through it all with the help of some buddies he makes along the way. (One of them, departing before the end, actually gives him his boots.) Sam, a Brazilian woman, went on the pilgrimage to escape a bleak job situation and a toxic relationship with a boyfriend. She says she is looking more for questions than for answers. Not long into the trek she throws away her antidepression medication. 

Things get thrown away by all: unneeded clothes, packs, utensils. They learn pretty quickly to travel light. En route, the pilgrims are put up in hostels providing them with beds and the basics. Snoring in the sleep rooms is a major complaint.

My favorite duo was Wayne, a retired Canadian man who recently lost his wife and wants to honor her, and his friend Jack, a retired Episcopalian minister. The men, who appear to be on the far side of 70, are probably the halest in the bunch. They almost inhale the open spaces. When Jack takes a side trip to a nearby city, riding the buses becomes “almost frightening” for him. He can’t wait to return to the countryside amble for the uplift it brings. “Life and spirituality are so entwined,” he says, “that it’s impossible to separate them.” 

Smith allows these people to speak their minds, and, as the journey progresses, the talk, not surprisingly, becomes increasingly depth-charged. In some cases, the spiritual elation that some of the pilgrims profess may be nothing more exalted than a transcendent version of a “runner’s high.” It would have been fascinating if Smith had followed up with these people after their journey’s end, to see how much of the exaltation had burned away. But for some (including Smith herself), the experience is clearly a life changer. As a Spanish priest says of the journey, “It’s an intermission in our real camino, which is our life.” Grade: B+ (Unrated.)

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