Anyone who undertakes the 500-mile Camino de Santiago in Spain deserves some serious credit. And while the numbers of travelers who traverse the path to the shrine of St. James in Santiago de Compostela is surprisingly high – 270,000 in 2010 alone – the documentary “Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago” is the closest many of us will come.
Happily, director Lydia B. Smith’s film does a fine job of sharing the visual – and, for many travelers, spiritual – highlights of the journey. While the documentary breaks no new ground, it is a briskly told travelogue filled with lush scenery and several compelling subjects.
The Camino has been traveled for more than 1,200 years, and as one of the film’s interviewees tells us, even though it began as a Christian pilgrimage, it is now a popular trek for walkers of any faith, and from all walks of life.
Interestingly, the Camino also was the subject of Emilio Estevez’s underrated 2010 film “The Way,” which starred the director’s father, Martin Sheen, as a hard-headed American walking the ancient path with his late son’s ashes. “The Way” was a modest success, critically and commercially, and would make for a nice double bill with this documentary.
In fact, it is hard not to think of “The Way” when watching “Walking the Camino.” Comparatively, Estevez’s solid drama seems a stronger, if more overtly Hollywoodized, telling of what makes the Camino so transformative for its walkers.
Even so, the six groups of subjects we encounter all gain some personal insight by journey’s end. They are Los Angeles resident Annie (O’Neill, the film’s co-producer, who will be in attendance for question-and-answer sessions following the July 21 and 22 screenings at the Eastern Hills Mall), Canadian retirees Jack and Wayne, Danish student Misa, Brazilian Sam, Young Tomás and French single mother Tatiana.
As might be expected, some of the subjects are more compelling than others. Tatiana, for example, has brought along her adorable young son Cyrian and her brother Alexis, and the trio’s good-natured squabbling – Tatiana is quite religious, while Alexis does not believe in God – is enjoyably down-to-earth. It is especially fun to see little Cyrian traverse the long path.
Misa has come for some introspection but surprises herself by making an instant connection with a fellow traveler named William. Director Smith’s camera keenly watches as the two develop a relationship and even share a clandestine kiss.
Viewers will certainly identify with the oft-wounded Annie, but we spend a bit too much time with her, Tomás and Sam, and not enough with Jack and Wayne. The latter is a recent widower, and offers some nice insight on what the journey means to him, culminating in the realization that he must simply “walk this day as best I can.”
Perhaps the film would have benefited slightly from a narrower focus – six groups is at least one or two groups too many. Still, the film is effective in demonstrating how and why walking the Camino is such a transformative event in its subjects’ lives.
Sometimes the hikers’ words sound a bit clichéd (“Every day is a journey, and the road itself is home”), but such statements are earned. If you walk 500 miles, I think you have the right to say such a line, and with confidence, too.
Walking the Camino:
Six Ways to Santiago
Director: Lydia B. Smith
Running time: 84 minutes
Rating: Unrated but PG equivalent.
The Lowdown: Documentary follows six groups of hikers walking the 500-mile Camino de Santiago in Spain.