A child's suffering for sainthood

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Camino: 143 minutes. Director: Javier Fesser. Starring: Nerea Camacho, Carme Elias, Mariano Venancio, Manuella Vellés

Camino'Camino is meant to be a story told from an objective angle, free from prejudice or stereotyped mindsets', says writer-director Javier Fesser. 'A film which regards reality with a generous gaze, without judging it. Rather like an x-ray image.'

Perhaps x-ray is not the right word. Rather, Camino provides an image of religion shown at close proximity. The result is a portrayal of the Catholic Church in Spain that is at once limited, humane and not entirely flattering.

It is set in the cloistered world of Opus Dei, the lay Catholic movement in which the patriarchal is shown to border on the oppressive. Its hero is Camino (Camacho), a young girl drawn towards painful death by an insidious tumour.

The word camino is Spanish for path or journey. Tellingly, it is a masculine noun, and Camino's journey is defined by masculine forces.

The Opus Dei hierarchy and its emphasis upon a Father-God have displaced the nurturing instincts of Camino's mother, Gloria (Elias). Her piety shrouds her humanity, and so she lovingly urges Camino along the path of suffering, and implores her to be grateful that she has been chosen by God for the privilege.

There is little in Gloria's treatment of her daughter to evoke sympathy. The same can not be said of Camino's father, José (Venancio), whose deep love for his daughter is undermined by his wife's overbearing piety.

He has been supplanted by the Church as the paternal figure in his family. His elder daughter, Nuria (Vellés), has been called to a vocation within the movement, and Gloria is prompting Camino along the same path. José has been emasculated, and thus seems unable to assert his more tender instincts towards his daughters. So Camino is left unshielded from her mother's persuasive rhetoric.

Camino's path leads towards sainthood. The film was inspired by the true case of Montse Grases, a girl who died young and is in the process of being beatified. It raises questions about the manipulation of the process that leads to the beatification of one so young.

But these questions are not Camino's. Perfectly cast, Camacho brings to Camino a luminescence that dissipates the clouds that surround her.

To her, the idea of being 'chosen' by God brings an abiding terror. Camino is perplexed by her cooking teacher's waxing on the theme of vocation, and baffled by her sister's abandoning her world and worldliness to pursue a holier calling. She is haunted by dreams in which a wailing (male) angel descends upon her like a dragon.

But Camino finds the simplicity of faith and unconditional love in her everyday world. She is infatuated with a boy. This is a normal adolescent preoccupation, but for Camino the crush arrives with the force of providence.

The fact that the boy's name is Jesus hints that there is a mystical element to the attraction. It certainly gives her a particular understanding of her mother's talk of 'loving Jesus'. It also provides Camino with a unique means of coping with her ordeal, both more innocent and more profound than her mother's blinkered perspective.

There is a touch of the supernatural in Camino's journey. During a prologue, Camino, in the throes of a deathbed vision, tells of seeing an 'ugly face'. The utterance sets a sense of horror in the gut, which remains with the viewer as the film then flashes back to 'where it all began'. An eerie sense of the dark unknown, with hints of The Exorcist.

The intertextuality swings from horror to fairytales. Besides the unsettling wonderment of Alice in Wonderland, there are the uplifting, 'love conquers all' riffs of Cinderella and The Sleeping Beauty. All of which serve to evoke the childlikeness of the protagonist, and not to suggest the mores of religion are bound up with fantasy.

On the contrary, religion is shown to be present and pertinent, existing beyond either the dogma of the institutional Church on one side, and the capacity of the child to imagine or understand on the other.

Camino herself, vulnerable to the manipulation of those around her, succeeds in reinforcing their dogma. Yet at the same time she transcends it. She ends up in her father's arms; her path has led from patriarchal-oppressive to paternal-nurturing. That would seem a worthy aspiration for institutions and individuals alike.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles and reviews have been published by The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier Mail and The Big Issue.

Topic tags: Camino, opus dei, Montse Grases, Javier Fesser, Nerea Camacho, Carme Elias, Mariano Venancio, Manuella Vell



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Existing comments

I find this review puzzling. Fesser says that the film is "free from prejudice or stereotyped mindsets". Well, I saw it, and as most reviewers have commented, it was full to overflowing with stereotypes. But its worst feature is its take on Christian suffering. Fesser believes that suffering has no purpose. Hence any Christian who finds a higher purpose must be a hypocrite. I found the film quite bizarre and incoherent, even though the acting and cinematography was excellent.

Michael Cook | 27 April 2009  

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