domingo, 18 de octubre de 2009

Review of the film "Camino" / Reseña de la película "Camino" (en inglés)

Warning: spoilers below

Over the summer, I ordered a copy of Camino, the Goya award-winning film directed by Javier Fesser. While I had glanced at the stellar reviews the film had received in the Spanish press, to be honest, I had little interest in actually seeing this movie -- mostly, I ordered the film in order to study it. Perhaps my resistance to watching it was due to something as insignificant as the DVD cover, which I kept staring at as I put off watching the film yet another night.

The image of young actor Nerea Camacho, alternately ghostly, angelic, and martyr-like, conjures images of a young nun-in-training. Lying in a hospital bed, bald head covered with a white cloth, Camacho looks instead to be wearing a habit, as if she were illumined from within by a supernatural power. The red slash on her neck and sore on her lip, which can most certainly be read as a kind of stigmata, also made me fear that the film would be replete with graphic hospital scenes of a suffering child, something I don't think anyone can tolerate watching for long.

The image of this young child, and the quote beneath her smiling gaze on the movie poster, "Do you want me to pray for you to die too?," did not intrigue me (as a side note, my DVD copy has the banal phrase "A love story that will touch your heart"). Rather, they caused me to resist opening the DVD for several months. I often do this with films that, deep down, I am probably curious about, but have a certain degree of dread about viewing. A perfect example would be Pan's Labyrinth, which sat in its little Netflix envelope for weeks before I finally got the nerve to watch it (unlike most of my students, I was not impressed by Pan's Labyrinth - I liked El espinazo del diablo better).

On Friday night, around midnight, I finally got the nerve to sit down and digest this film. I knew it would require a bit of extra viewing time (140 mins.), but I had a feeling it would also require patience. And, because Camino does not yet have English subtitles -- something I found strange for such a successful film -- I knew I would have to watch it by myself. I am pleased to report that my review is exceedingly favorable, and I am very glad I had the opportunity to see "Camino." This is a film that is sure to feed active scholarly imaginations from any number of angles, including gender, religion, the body, films featuring child protagonists, fairy tales, etc. etc. Here, it is not my intent to run through the entire film, but rather to note a few significant elements I hope to explore further later on and in a different context.

As is well-known by now, the title of the film, "Camino," has at least three meanings, if not more. As one reviewer put it in ABC, "Camino is the name of the child protagonist. Camino is the title of a work by Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer, founder of the Opus Dei. Camino is the title of the film by Javier Fesser...." I will add here that "Camino" is, by the way, "The Way," as in the path to salvation. But, thinking for a moment like the professor of Spanish language that I am, interestingly, "Camino" is also the first-person singular of the verb "caminar," which we can take literally and metaphorically here. After the opening scenes of the film, the child Camino does little physical walking, and this is not only due to the effects of the tumor in her spine. Camino's steps, her path, are guided primarily by stories of the lives of the female saints (Bernadette, in particular), her mother - who reminds her daughter Camino that she must thank God for her illness -- and sister-in-absentia, Núria, who is living as an Opus Dei numerary in Salamanca. The other "walking" that Camino does, she does in her imagination, with her father's help, in dreams - and sometimes, in terrifying nightmares - or under the effects of powerful medications to treat her illness.

Though Javier Fesser's screenplay is based on a true-life story, the child at the center of the story was not named Camino, but Alexia (this is not the place for it, but Camino's release generated a great degree of outrage by Alexia's family, as well as the Opus Dei). Although the filmic story takes place in 2001, Alexia died in 1985, and it is in her memory that the film is dedicated, as we see at the end of the film. The poetic license taken by Fesser with the child's name allows us to link Camino's story, albeit tangentially, to the decades prior to her birth.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to ignore that what we have here is a child named after a book published in 1939 (it first appeared in the mid-30s) by the priest (known today as the "Saint of Everyday Life") Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer (click here for the contents of the book in English). Though the Franco regime and Opus Dei may have had their share of differences, the link between the two cannot be ignored, as we see in this letter addressed by Escrivá de Balaguer to the dictator (my emphasis added):
To his Excellency Francisco Franco Bahamonde, Head of State of Spain

Your Excellency:

I wish to add my sincerest personal congratulation to the many you have received on the occasion of the promulgation of the Fundamental Principles.

My forced absence from our homeland in service of God and souls, far from weakening my love for Spain, has, if it were possible, increased it. From the perspective of the eternal city of Rome, I have been able to see better than ever the beauty of that especially beloved daughter of the church which is my homeland, which the Lord has so often used as an instrument for the defense and propagation of the holy, Catholic faith in the world.

Although alien to any political activity, I cannot help but rejoice as a priest and Spaniard that the Chief of State’s authoritative voice should proclaim that, “The Spanish nation considers it a badge of honor to accept the law of God according to the one and true doctrine of the Holy Catholic Church, inseparable faith of the national conscience which will inspire its legislation.” It is in fidelity to our people’s Catholic tradition that the best guarantee of success in acts of government, the certainty of a just and lasting peace within the national community, as well as the divine blessing for those holding positions of authority, will always be found.

I ask God our Lord to bestow upon your Excellency with every sort felicity and impart abundant grace to carry out the grave mission entrusted to you.

Please accept, Excellency, the expression of my deepest personal esteem and be assured of my prayers for all your family.

Most devotedly yours in the Lord,
Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer
Rome, May 23, 1958
While director Javier Fesser makes no overt references to the war, postwar or Francoism, he seems intent on reminding his viewers that, for the duration of the film, we will live with Camino, her parents and sister in what is, in many ways, an anachronistic realm -- the spaces Fesser portrays often reflect inherently Francoist ideologies regarding gender roles and religion. Several elements help foster this impression, such as the use of black and white; conservative dress (particularly by female characters); the emphasis on domestic chores; gender segregation and the exaltation and banning of certain books. For example, writings by Saint Teresa of Avila -- a figure who, like Isabel la Católica, was continuously promoted under Francoism as the ideal woman -- are emphasized ("Nada te turbe, nada te espante....Sólo Dios basta"), while in one scene, Cela's La colmena (significantly, also the name of the children's school) is thrown into the box marked "No aptos."

Initially, the film's use of black and white took me by surprise, since the DVD cover is in color, as are the scenes portrayed on the back. However, black and white is an essential part of the film's appeal. In the first scenes, I was momentarily tricked into thinking Camino was set in the Francoist 50s. I also expected a gradual shift to color, which did not happen. The opening image of a conservatively-dressed woman carefully ironing a stack of clothing harkens back to photos of members of the Sección Femenina, not of modern women in the early 21st century. I think that this is, in fact, Fesser's point, which I feel he handles quite masterfully. I was impressed that Fesser did not need to (or want to?) allude directly to Francoism -- though perhaps softer here, there are certainly trace elements of the stifling environments found in novels of 50s Spain, like Nada or Entre visillos, particularly in the panoptic role played by Carme Elias, Camino's mother, and in representations of female abnegation throughout the film.

In many ways, Camino is really less about a suffering child of the Opus Dei -- and I am hesitant to call it a "love story" as my DVD cover puts it - and more about the different ways in which people respond and relate to death and dying. Thankfully, the film leaves viewers with a certain degree of mystery regarding Camino's "afterlife."

In what I found to be one of the most disturbing scenes, at the end of the film, doctors, nurses, priests and family members surround Camino's bedside as if they are watching a reality TV show. When Camino speaks, semi-conscious, near death, in response to what she sees before her - in her mind - one of the priests at her bedside begins to clap and is joined by others in the room. The crowd's response is shaped by what it expects to hear -- perhaps, what it needs to hear -- from Camino. Is this faith? It would not seem to be an appropriate definition of this term. It is significant that the director allows viewers to share Camino's vision, which does not correspond to the narrative put forth throughout the film by patriarchal Church figures and its followers. Camino's body, like that of a martyred saint, is a sacrificial offering. And in many ways, Camino has also had to sacrifice her autonomy of mind and spirit. It is difficult to see how this process could be voluntary in a child. But as Fesser reminds us, Camino's thoughts and words -- her ending -- ultimately still belong to her.

Highly recommended. Note: I am not a fan of mice.
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