In 2011, Martin Sheen took a lead role in a film called The Way, adapted for the screen and directed by his son, Emilio Estevez. For a lot of people (myself included), this film was the first time El Camino de Santiago – The Way of St. James – was brought to their consciousness. I had never heard of this Spanish pilgrim trail before watching this film, and in the course of writing about the film, I was fascinated by the notion of the spiritual journey many take year in and year out to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.
People walk it for many different reasons – to find personal direction, to communicate with God, in remembrance of a loved one, or just to see if they can do it. Regardless, people from all different strata of society come to this place to get right with themselves. Documentarian Lydia Smith’s new film, Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago examines the personal struggles of six different travelers and what brought them to Spain to endure this often-grueling walk.
Her subjects – a grieving widower, a woman who’s lost her way in life, a guy who seems to be there just for the good time, a mother walking with her son and her goofy brother, a woman who just wants to be alone, and another woman who just needs a new perspective – are honestly just regular folks with problems like ours. Smith wants to make them more than that; she wants them to be epic. We hear repeated stories about blisters and bad knees, how much everyone snores, and tearful confessions on how much their opinions of others have changed on this walk. Unfortunately, this method of “make ‘em cry for the camera” doesn’t do anything but make the viewer hope that the next segment will be a little more enlightening.
Smith’s documentary seems to be a little all over the map as far as trying to bring some sense of drama to the proceedings. Although she tries to capture the walkers during candid moments, in the early goings, she’s heard off-camera really trying to make a certain scene more emotional. It’s like she’s trying too hard to make us care instead of letting the Camino and its travelers be interesting on their own.
Walking the 900-some kilometers to the Cathedral over a period of weeks is definitely no easy task. Participants have to put up with bad roads, twisted ankles, terrible weather, and other fellow travelers whose intentions may not be as noble as their own. Will this walk bring about the necessary change in people? Does the end of the walk bring the closure and the peace that they seek in their lives? This film doesn’t tell us, as if the subjects’ existence is merely to be camera fodder for the filmmakers in the here and now.
Smith’s intention with Walking the Camino is no more than to show us what life is like on the journey. The participants’ lives start and stop with the opening and closing credits of the film, with not much to chew on other than an attempt at being deep and philosophical about why they’re doing this in the first place. There are sights to behold and stories to be told, but it’s all wrapped in a package that never rises to reach the epiphany that the filmmakers hope you experience.