The idea of pilgrimage, of walking to holy sites in the hope of expiating one’s sins, goes back to the Middle Ages. In one sense it is Catholic in as much as it originates pre-Reformation. It should perhaps have atrophied along with Mummers Plays and Ducking Stools. Therefore, you could say, there is something to be explained about the continuing cult of doing this 450-mile hike across Northern Spain known as the Camino de Santiago (the way of Saint James). Is there something mysterious and personally epiphanic that persists in this ancient custom? Or is it really just a triumph of tourist ‘re-packaging’; inspiration-lite for the modern identity-obsessed, globalised age?
In Fergus Grady and Noel Smythe’s modest documentary such questions are deliberately not delved into. Instead, we follow a few people from New Zealand and other countries who have decided to do the big slog. They are ‘randoms’ in the modern parlance, and the filmmakers sensibly don’t make any great claims for them being especially interesting or unusual. Although some aspects of their histories and biographies are interesting and even moving. People are interesting. The film would just implode if that wasn’t the case. In a way they are ‘everyman’ and that is totally in keeping with the spirit of the enterprise to which so many nameless people have committed themselves over so many centuries.
The problem for the film though is not just in this dilemma (how much do these people want to show of their inner life? How much will be revealed just by the camera crew tagging along?), but also how to make a largely ‘interior’ journey interesting. Otherwise it becomes like a giant reality TV show – Ninja Warrior in the hills – with them as ‘contestants’ to which we cannot but assign tropes or stereotypes; the plucky overweight one, the frail old lady with arthritis, the unbearably mock-profound euro tourist. The focus on these particular people – let’s not call them pilgrims – has to carry the main load. In fact, they are listed in the credits under the cast heading.
As noted, the filmmakers eschew any attempt to situate the Way as a phenomenon, either historically or sociologically or theologically. Nor do they want it to dissolve into some scenery-displaying travel show. The wide shots are actually kept to a minimum. And sweeping, inspiring music is mostly sidelined in favour of a few touches of Spanish folk.
Looked at coldly, this is just 80 minutes of people tramping along a road, but somehow the film works (at least in places) despite itself. Perhaps there is a little bit of pilgrim in all of us.