Strangers on Earth

Studio: First Run Features
Directed by Tristan Cook

May 04, 2018 Web Exclusive
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Between Saint Jean Pied de Port in France and Spain’s Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia lies 500 miles of sacred foot traffic. Known as the Camino de Santiago, pilgrims from around the world search for meaning, miracles, and God while walking the long trail that takes them to the shrine dedicated to the apostle Saint James the Great.

For cinephiles with an affinity for Surrealism, the Camino de Santiago should sound familiar: Luis Bunuel made it the setting for his 1969 film The Milky Way. Bunuel’s film follows two travelers on “the Way of Saint James.” The film is a road movie, but one that isn’t interested in showing what the actual Camino looks like; instead, The Milky Way takes scenic routes that wind and twist their way through centuries of weird religious heresies. Bunuel’s travelers can’t walk more than a few feet without tripping over a forgotten saint or mad theologian.

Half a century later, another director took his camera down the Camino. In 2010 Breakfast Club star Emilio Estevez wrote, produced, and directed The Way, a drama that followed a Camino pilgrim played by Estevez’s father Martin Sheen. Bunuel’s film was a caustic and brilliant examination of faith; it wasn’t exactly a call to action for folks to hit the road to Compostela. The Way is another story: one of the pilgrims in Tristan Cook’s Strangers on the Earth admits that watching Estevez’s film inspired her to take the pilgrimage.

Cook’s documentary travels the length of the pilgrimage, chronicling the natural splendours of the Camino while giving us an impression of what it’s like for people to undertake this arduous walk. The closest thing the film has to a narrative focal point is an American cellist named Dane Johansen. Announcing his ambition through a crowdfunding video to travel the Camino with his instrument on his back, Johansen visits the churches and shrines dotting the landscape of the Camino to play cello pieces by Bach.

While Cook checks in with Johansen from time to time and spotlights a few of the cellist’s performances, the director wisely doesn’t linger on him for too long; Johansen doesn’t really become a compelling presence until the end of the film. Dozens of other pilgrims get their time in front of the camera, sharing their reasons for going on a walk that can last for weeks and turn their feet into masses of yellowing blisters.

For some of the pilgrims, the Camino is an opportunity to seek the divine. For others, it’s a way to process grief: one pilgrim tells a deeply affecting story about experiencing visions of his dead sister while walking the St. James way. And for some pilgrims, it’s just a taxing yet picaresque hike. One self-proclaimed “Camino snob” throws shade at these people, bemoaning the secularization of the Camino. In one of the film’s funniest edits, the camera cuts to a pilgrim getting out of a taxi mid-route while the snob’s voiceover grumbles about people who’d rather take a bus than endure the physical suffering and trials that are supposed to be a part of the pilgrimage experience.

Tracing the lines on a scallop shell, the symbol of St. James, a Camino local explains that there are many routes and reasons that bring people to the Camino. But like roads to Rome, all these lines arc and terminate at the Compostela. And so does the film, arriving at the shrine for a contemplative moment before heading off to the beach at Finisterre for a final coda.

While the film is full of pilgrims eager to share their experiences, the real star of the film is cinematographer Iskra Valtcheva. “Walking to Santiago is like passing through a rainbow,” a pilgrim says wistfully. From luminous stain glass windows to golden wheat rippling in a breeze and poppies spread out over lush grass like pools of blood, Valtcheva’s camera revels in all the colors of that rainbow.

But Valtcheva and Cook also find beauty in the works of man: the almost supernatural speed of Johansen’s fingers running up and down his cello strings; a censer on a long chain, billowing incense, swinging like a pendulum through the inside of the Compostela; and the image of pilgrims walking through a fog-shrouded road while cyclists and cars quietly drift by them.

While the film’s meditative pace can make it easy for your attention to waver after awhile, the beauty of its visuals is enough to pull you back in. The greatest compliment one can pay it is that it’s bound to eclipse The Way as the film that people will say inspired them to put one foot in front of the other and make their way to pay Saint James a visit.

Author rating: 8/10

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