Patrick Preziosi on Fergus Grady and Noel Smyth’s ‘Camino Skies’ (2019)
“Walking is a man’s best medicine,” so said Hippocrates, whose quote opens Fergus Grady and Noel Smyth’s Camino Skies, a documentary dedicated largely to, yes, walking. Six men and women hailing from both New Zealand and Australia, and all between the ages of 50 and 80, undertake the Camino de Santiago (known as The Way of St. James in English) in Spain, a network of crisscrossing pilgrims’ ways of varying terrain which come to their end in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, the thought-to-be burial site of Saint James himself. The trail extends for 800 kilometres, so it’s inevitable that Grady and Smyth’s subjects are recorded and subsequently interviewed while walking, or at least taking a break from doing so.
The Camino runs a mammoth distance — both physically and spiritually — for a svelte, 80-minute running film, whose pocket-sized being seems a result of ineffectual politeness, rather than derived from any larger thematic concern. The Camino is a site that is said to evoke internal feelings of acceptance, closure, and the like, and as displayed by Camino Skies, it attracts those still living in the shadow of personal tragedy or trauma. All interviewees are then introduced in the context of such, some grappling with cataclysmic loss such as 50-year-old Mark, encouraged to do the trek by his Camino veteran father-in-law Terry (69), after the untimely passing of the former’s daughter from cystic fibrosis. There’s also the self-actualization the trail can engender, as is the case for 70-year old scoliotic and arthritic Sue Morris, who asserts, “I’m just a normal person.”
As idyllic as the trail can be, it also strays into stretches of arid monotony, an unpleasantness that reputedly shakes loose a reflectiveness that may have been otherwise dormant prior to the Camino. Camino Skies is riddled with reductionist readings, but its central flaw is its treatment of the trail itself. Forgoing any sort of palpable sensation of duration, physicality, or just plain difficulty, the documentary opts for scattered clips of some panting hikers, one of whom jokes that the only thing that motivated her through the most infamous stretch — which some even skip — was listening to Black Sabbath. The virtues and strains of the Camino are so neatly packaged and presented that Camino Skies occasionally struggles to elevate itself above advertisement material.
This puts a lot of pressure on the participants themselves, whose own testimonies and whatnot are the last degree of separation between the film and a mere travelogue. Morris’ perspective inspires the most, her own hike impeded by physical conditions that should render it impossible. She’s neither fatalistic nor overly-optimistic throughout, and her own straightforwardness sets her apart from the others, who Grady and Smyth consistently frame in tragic reconciliation or New Age-y thoughtfulness, with little room to breathe between the two. The end goal grows more inscrutable as Camino Skies progresses: what is it trying to impart beyond what was already outlined in its first ten minutes?
That’s because, as said, Grady and Smyth have little to no interest in constructing a secondhand experience for the viewer. When the hikers speak of their pasts, I can’t imagine it eliciting much more than emotional rubbernecking to even the most engaged audience, so denied are the subjects of any agency beyond the constraints of the film. This lack of interior life is only exacerbated by Camino Skies’ editing, quick to cut and leap into treacly montage, suggesting closure that is only present for the way the filmmakers have willed it into the fabric of the film itself. For that, it resembles Emilio Estevez’s forgettably inoffensive film The Way (2010), in which a father embarks on the Camino after his estranged son died doing so, amassing a network of friends along the way. The best to be said for Camino Skies is that it brings that film’s depressingly predictable emotional arc closer to life.
Available on Curzon Home Cinema 7 May.