"Walking the Camino" is extraordinary.
"Walking the Camino" is extraordinary. Who knew that there was a 500-mile trail, known as the Camino de Santiago, that begins just across the border in France, at St. Pied de Port, and stretches westward, across northern Spain, to the city of Santiago de Compostela? To know that it exists, and has for some for some 1,200 years, is revelatory.
Millions of people have made the journey. In the Middle Ages, it was a sacred journey of faith or penance, not unlike the journey to Mecca. Today, pilgrims make the trek for a myriad of reasons, varied and personal.
At first blush, "Walking the Camiino" may seem a film simply about a long, arduous trek — backpack ever-present, laden with gear; long-stemmed walking poles in hand; feet tired and blistered, comfortable boots essential; and rain slickers always at the ready. In truth, however, as the film so eloquently reveals, to walk the Camino is to make not only an external journey across an astonishingly lovely landscape (described by one trekker as "walking in a post card"), but can be, for some, an internal journey as well, one in which new truths about oneself are revealed as well as unexpected answers to very old questions. Answers not only about endurance and tenacity, but also about purpose and meaning and what is ultimately of value.
At the end of the walk, arriving in Santiago, many have concluded that the experience — meeting people from all over the world, sharing accommodations and resources with strangers, being welcomed in special pilgrim hostels (albergues), all while confronting a silence that is encompassing — can be transformative.
Perhaps no one was better suited to make this film than producer/director Lydia B. Smith. A veteran filmmaker who lived in Barcelona for six years, Smith had hiked the Camino and knew intimately the challenges pilgrims face. And it was on her trek that the idea to make a film about the Camino took hold.
Hesitant at first, concerned that she could not do the essence of the journey justice, she concluded "that that's what so many of us do: We stop ourselves from pursuing our dreams because we think we can't do something perfectly — when actually it's the journey that counts."
The following spring, Smith returned with a world-class crew and, using three camera units, spent some six weeks following six pilgrims, a truly international group, conducting hours of walk-and-talk and stationary interviews as well as encouraging the subjects to record their own video-diaries that resulted in intimate insights and revelations as they walked the Camino de Santiago.
Jeff Nichols, writer and director of the just-released "Mud," captures lightning in a canning jar. With his rich panoply of characters, fine writing, and dead-on atmospherics he describes perfectly one damp Mississippi Delta summer and the coming-of-age of two boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), each 14.
Both boys live precarious lives on the ragged edges of a poor Arkansas community. Ellis shares an aging houseboat with his parents. He helps his father (Ray McKinnon) sell catfish door-to-door, struggling to sustain a way of life that is fast slipping away. Ellis' mother (Sarah Paulson), in contrast, wants to move into town, hence their relationship is increasingly brittle. Neckbone lives with an uncle (Michael Shannon), a clam diver, in a trailer and already is far more cynical and street smart than Ellis.
On a small island out in the Delta, Ellis and Neckbone have discovered a boat up in a tree, left there in a past flood. For them, it's an intoxicating find, a perfect retreat from the exigencies of their lives.
They discover, however, that someone is living onboard. Walking back to their small motor skiff, they meet a man at water's edge, fishing. He tells them he's using the treed boat and intends to repair it and then get off the island.
His name is Mud (Matthew McConaughey). He needs their help, first for food and then supplies. He is enigmatic, friendly, with an edge of danger, a gun tucked into the back of his pants. Naturally, he sparks the imaginations of the boys, especially Ellis.
There's an ominous quality to the narrative as it unfolds. Mud tells the boys he's on the run, his story involving a woman he's loved all his life, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), who is waiting for him in town. The boys are soon won over and eager to help and begin scrounging whatever Mud needs, cannibalizing junkyards and old boats.
Writer/director Jeff Nichols never allows the film to become sentimental nor does he rely on southern caricatures. Mud is complex, restrained, and yet compelling, an archetype of sorts, and the boys, while struggling to do his bidding, with a hero-worshipping commitment, are also coping with the emotions of young adolescence. Which Nichols gets just right.
"Mud" is, above all, an insightful and gripping study of multiple characters: Ellis' mother and father; Juniper; an old man (Sam Shepard), living across the river from Ellis; and, of course, the boys and Mud. There's a sense of authenticity, of hard-scrabble reality, that threads its way through this keenly observed film, a kaleidoscope of people and place wherein a patina of rust and wear exemplifies not only the detritus found everywhere, but reflects the lives of those who exist on the margins of life. A last comment: The performances in "Mud," to the person, are astonishingly good.