Pilgrimages have not inspired much in the way of entertainment since Chaucer’s day, though it seems a natural framework for telling stories, developing characters, and in general finding amusement in the journey of life. Lydia B. Smith takes up the pilgrimage as life to see how it works in the 21st century in her documentary “Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago,” about six modern-day pilgrims who trek the Camino de Santiago, the 1,200-year-old, 500-mile trail from the town of St. Jean Pied de Port in France to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela near the Spanish coast.
Along the way, Smith demonstrates that it’s not the road that tells the story, it’s the people. And in this case, despite some seeming differences in background, nationality, age, and gender (but not race; it’s an all-white affair until a South Korean woman makes a cameo appearance near the end), everyone ends up in the same place, not just geographically but spiritually — i.e., a kind of easy-listening amalgam of New Age self-help and hip Christianity.
Well, they earned it. Walking for more than four weeks on minimal rations and spending the night in cramped hostels can raise some nasty blisters and fray one’s nerves. You can almost smell the foot odor amidst the snoring in one of the film’s earthier, more amusing scenes in a crammed shelter. The pilgrimage also takes its toll on personal relationships, both preexisting and those formed on the road, and at times “Camino” resembles a clothed episode of “Naked and Afraid,” sponsored by REI. And though some of the pilgrims have deeper, more developed personalities than the average reality show contestant, their rough edges are smoothed out by the film’s banal benevolence.
I found Sam, from the United Kingdom (by way of Brazil), and Tomas, from Portugal, the most engaging. As told in one of the many voiceovers that break up montages of tiny figures in picturesque landscapes, bell towers, snails, dew-dotted flora, and monks and monsignors declaiming the virtues of the pilgrimage, Sam reveals that in real life she’s reached the end of the road. She’s lost her job, her boyfriend, and her home. It sounds like the premise for another ribald woman’s comedy, but rather than collapse into hilarious and scatological self-destruction, she puts on sensible shoes, dons a backpack, picks up a walking staff, and follows the footsteps that millions of other souls have taken over the centuries in search of salvation. Will the road reveal what’s missing in her life? Alas, that seems to be the case, as her spiritual insight douses what’s most interesting about her and turns her into a platitude-reciting clone of her fellow travellers. As for Tomas, he’s taken up the pilgrimage as a kind of lark. He’s fun-loving, down-to-earth, and funny (his imitation of snoring hostel guests is hilarious).
I was hoping they might blow off the trip and start a liaison, like a backpacking version of “Before Sunrise.” But it was not to be.
And yet, despite the climactic hugs all around and spiritual healing celebrated by a tearful service in the cathedral, some moments en route make an impression. When one of the older travelers makes a stop in Leon and says how terrifying it is to be in a city after weeks of walking, it rings true. They might well have been pilgrims in the 11th century for all the vestiges of the 21st century these pilgrims come across along the way, and the seeming bromides of living the moment and shedding one’s possessions to attain grace make sense. That is, until some pompous prelate states the obvious, and the spell is broken.
“Walking the Camino” trailer:
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.