Saturday, December 12, 2009

SCN: Javier Fesser's startling CAMINO updates the lives of the saints

To call Javier Fesser's thrilling, embarrassing, over-
the-top, can't-miss-it movie CAMINO a "provocation" does not begin to describe this total smackdown of The Catholic Church in Spain. Beginning in a hospital room in which our bed-ridden heroine lays dying, the writer/director (shown below) takes us back a few months to a more "normal" time before sickness set in. Not that the family shown here could in most ways be considered normal. (If it could, then Spain is in worse trouble than many of the films in this year's SCN are telling us.)

Although the FSLC's notes on Camino explain that it is speci-
fically the Opus Dei branch of the church that goads the suffering of its lead character into untenable regions, even having recently sat through the dreadful Angels & Demons, I could not begin to differentiate the Church's Opus Dei from any of its many members wearing cap and gown. They all look and act like churchmen to me, and for that matter do the same damage. And in any case, I believe that the Church must take responsibility for its lunatic spin-offs and the consequences, just as must the jerks from the major television networks who, some years back, blessed us with the "new" idea of reality TV.

In the course of this 2-1/2 hour film, we learn much about the family of four in thrall to religion and The Church: a sister already on the road to convent life; the mother (Carme Elias, above) ready to sacrifice her offspring; the father (a wonderful Mariano Venancio, below) loving but ineffectual against the god-driven mother; and Camino herself (Nerea Camacho, shown on the poster top, and two photos below), a bright, vivacious and lovely young girl on the brink of sexuality and everything else that life has to offer. It's an interesting choice of name that the director has given his lead character: "Camino" means "path" in Spanish, and the road this movie takes is a hard one indeed. At times the film almost seems like a retelling of the Stations of-the-Cross, hospital-style.

As Camino grows ever more sick, the movie shows us the equally unhealthy ways that religion has penetrated all areas of the fam-
ily's life, and slowly we begin to understand just what a monster this mother is. For her daughters' own good, of course, she has stolen and lied in order to force her girls into a religious life. It is to the great credit of actress Elias that she makes this woman, no matter what she does, at all times believable and human, if not humane. How does anyone become this enthralled to religion? The movie can't begin to answer that question but this actress certainly make us understand that such a transgression is possible. As for the Church and its little plan for Camino -- the film is said to be based on a real case of a young woman who is now being consi-
dered for canonization -- well, this version of The Lives of the Saints would have made the Church's "condemned" list of my youth.

As harrowing as it is to watch Camino go from one horrible operation to the next -- and as one symptom leads to another, even sicker -- Fesser leavens the downward slide by showing us the girl's rich fantasy life, which he brings to life with some eye-popping CGI effects. Her school class is putting on a theatrical production of Cinderella, and perhaps the filmmaker's most wonderful notion is to unite this, one of society's more potent myths -- about a girl getting her Prince -- with its other one: religion and eternal life with the son of God. The young fellow that Camino has her eye on (and who seems to like her, as well) is nick-named Cuco but his real name is Jesus (played by Lucas Manzano, shown second photo from bottom). How the director combines all this makes sublime use of beauty, amazement, irony and sorrow.

From the mice in the Disney version of the fairy tale to a mouse (above) the mother is trying to trap in the pantry, from the "guardian angel" (below) that mom assures Camino is there to protect her but who gives her nothing but nightmares to the girl's redolent fantasies of what a secular life might be like for both her and her sister, the movie mines a rich lode of Spanish tradition, turns it on its head and then polishes it to a bright sheen.

Sometimes too bright. There were plenty of moments throughout the film when TrustMovies felt that Señor Fesser had gone beyond the pale or was rubbing it in too aggressively, yet within a breath or two he'd brought the movie back on track to the point where it seemed even more involving. By the finale, my tears were shed equally for the sadness of lives this wasted and the joy of seeing a tale told with such talent and daring.

At the annual Goya awards (Spain's "Oscars"), Camino walked away with almost every major prize: Best Picture, Director, Writer, Actress, Supporting Actor and Breakthrough Actress for Ms. Camacho. Of late, Spain seems bent on honoring challenging movies (remember La Soledad two years ago?). Fesser's film may seem more mainstream than that of Jaime Rosales -- to a Catholic country, at least -- but it's the kind of mainstream from which our world could profit.

The film shows twice more at the Walter Reade Theater, Sunday, December 13, at 7:45 and Wednesday, December 16, at 8:30. Because La Soledad never saw an U.S. release, I would not count on one for Fesser's film, either. But we can hope.


Handel said...

Great writeup! I came across your blog while searching for clues about whether to see THE CONDEMNED.

CAMINO is my favorite movie of Spanish Cinema Now so far. Its fluid blurring of fantasy, reality and truth was something that took me by surprise. It reminded me a bit of Peter Jackson's HEAVENLY CREATURES but was far superior.

Sacrilegious, probably, but also truly miraculous

James van Maanen, said...

Thanks, Handel. Camino IS pretty special. And so is Bloody May, which plays one more time at SCN, this coming Sunday night. (I hope to have a write-up on it posted by tonight.) Less ground-breaking than Camino, it's still an amazing film. both were nominated for Spain's Best Pic,and though Camino won, I think, after seeing them both, I'd have given it to Bloody May.

Finally, did you end up seeing The Condemned, and if so, what did you think?

Handel said...

Thanks for recommending BLOODY MAY. I will try to catch it on Sunday.

I confess that I'm unfamiliar with the political history (and present) that sets the stage for THE CONDEMNED, but the movie seemed to handicap its own drama by showing the guilty aftermath of revolutionary upheaval (years later) instead of the revolution itself and the events that led the characters state. No flashbacks, either! It was like watching a depressing sequel with a lot of padding, if that makes sense.

(My bad habit of comparing other movies kicked in partway through the movie and I thought that Ken Loach's THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY handled similar material much more deftly and drew the viewer into the outrage and anguish. Maybe apples and oranges, but this is just my opinion)

James van Maanen, said...

You are probably right, Handel: Unfamiliarity with the history behind The Condemned would handicap the movie. It will probably most appeal to Argentines and older folk, internationally, who remember that time.

And don't ever apologize for your opinion. That's all ANY of us have, in any case. (Of course, some opinions are more informed than others -- but that does not necessarily make them less suspect.)

I'll be interested to know what you think of Bloody May...