Dir/scr: Javier Fesser. Spain. 2008. 142 mins.
Few films manage to balance Hollywood sentiment and European irony as successfully as Javier Fesser’s weird but impressive third feature, which is based on the case of Alexia Gonzalez-Barros, a devoutly Catholic Spanish girl whose ‘exemplary’ hospital death in 1985 at the age of 14 has become the focus of a cult of sainthood. Despite its dark subject matter, this is a big, commercial film. Set for Spanish release on October 17, Camino may pose some marketing challenges, but it’s hard to imagine a major territory in which it won’t work on some level despite its lengthy running time and subject matter.
In his third feature, Fesser - who helmed cartoonish Spanish box office smash Mortadelo y Filemon in 2003 - keeps the audience guessing as to whether Camino is joking or serious, sarcastic or sincere. The result is a kind of three-way collision between The Magdalene Sisters, Amelie and The Song of Bernadette. At times it feels like a children’s movie - but its bitter grown-up irony and squirmingly graphic scenes of open surgery would countermine this.
Like Gonzalez-Barros and her family, the film’s dying protagonist Camino and her mother, father and sister are members of Opus Dei - the controversial Catholic organisation (founded by Spain’s recently-canonised Jose Maria Escriva) that encourages ‘personal prelature’ - devoting oneself to God without taking holy orders or retreating from the outside world. The film’s undisguised critique of what it sees as the bulletproof spiritual smugness of many of Opus Dei’s members and prelates had already begun to stir controversy in Spain despite the secrecy surrounding Camino’s plot.
Opening with a deathbed scene that will be reinterpreted when it appears again at the end, the film soon backtracks five months to follow the life of thirteen-year-old Camino (Camacho) - a bouncy girl whose happy, God-coddled life in Madrid pans out between her religious school and a home dominated by her pious but also creepily authoritarian mother Gloria (Elias, who gives a terrifically controlled performance). Camino falls in platonic love with a boy called Cuco (Manzano) at a school theatre group. But young love is thwarted when the back pains that have been troubling her turn out to have a serious origin - and she is forced to undergo a barrage of tests, operations and radiation therapy sessions that eventually leave her bedridden, immobilised and blind.
Bolstered by a swelling orchestral score and characterised by hyper-real, theatrical performances from its child actors, the first part of the film sometimes feels like pure mush. But gradually, irony begins to pierce the veil. Gloria encourages her daughter to dedicate her suffering to Jesus, and gives her bedside flowers away to another, more needy patient; Camino’s older sister Nuria (Velles), meanwhile, is living as a novitiate in an Opus Dei house where the women are cordoned off from the men - and yet act as housemaids to them. Only Camino’s weak and spiritually confused father (Venancio) gives her pure affection untainted by religious dogma.
A series of CGI-rich dream sequences convey the dark side of Camino’s Catholic faith, as the guardian angel her mother so fervently invokes becomes a disturbing force. But she also increasingly uses fantasy to escape from her hospital bed, elaborating on the progress of the innocent love affair that she was unable to pursue (the outtakes from Disney’s Cinderella that feature here give some idea of Camino’s major budget).
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