Millions of people have walked the Camino de Santiago, a 1,200-year old pilgrimage to the the supposed resting place of the bones of the apostle St. James. The distance alone—500 miles from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in southwestern France—is quite a feat, and yet it is much more than that to the thousands who still walk the trail every year. Not everyone walking the route is religious, but all are taking a personal journey, both physically and spiritually, that often brings lifelong bonds with others.
Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago is a documentary that, in addition to exploring the history of the trail, lets one walk alongside six pilgrims through the beautiful countryside. Their origins and stories are diverse, human and sometimes humorous, and they show very different ways of reaching the same goal. The physical goal and the interior goal, however, are very different among them.
“When I first started, I was just walking and people said to me ‘You will find the answer,’ and then I realized that I didn’t have the question,” says Sam, a Brazilian woman in her thirties, desperate for some force to turn around her unhappy life. She is fed up with prescriptions and hopes to find a real solution to her ongoing depression, but the filmmakers keep her travelogue as cheerful as the others—even those who come with a built in conflict and familial friction.
“He is here to make party and I am not,” says the French Christian pilgrim Tatiana of her non-religious brother, who is traveling with her and her toddler. “And I say to him, if you do it again, we are not walking together.”
Other traveling partners are more pacific. A Canadian widower travels with his friend Jack, a 73-year-old Episcopal priest. “You get up in the morning, you put everything you own into one bag, and you walk,” one states, in one of the film’s many gnomic moments.
This film has been in production since 2008, when director Lydia B. Smith finished the trip herself, and though neither the cinematography nor the storytelling is groundbreaking, it’s done with refreshing candor and kindness. The saintly simplicity of it is a tonic during Oscar season and the current strong of cinematic explorations—and sideways glorifications—of excess from Hollywood, such as American Hustle and Wolf of Wall Street. The film is slow paced, but it doesn’t get bogged down in too much melodrama and provides just enough background about the pilgrimage itself without stopping in its own tracks. In this it is a perfect reflection of the walk that it follows—meditative, occasionally solemn, but ultimately lighthearted and uplifting.
After this film, perhaps you might find yourself inspired to take the trip yourself. But if you’re on a budget, a stroll around Greenlake will might suffice in the meantime. Either way, it may be worth making the trip to the theatre, at least, if you like a good travelogue or just want someone else to do the walking for a while as you take in the scenery.
Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago plays at SIFF Cinema Uptown and SIFF Film Center from this Friday, February 7 through Thursday, Feb. 13. (Not rated. 84 minutes.)