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Film review: Camino Skies and The Uncertain Kingdom

22 May 2020

Stephen Brown reviews two film releases that can be seen at home

Sue Morris in Camino Skies

Sue Morris in Camino Skies

THE co-directors of Camino Skies (Cert. 12), Noel Smyth and Fergus Grady, asked six people from New Zealand and Australia to agree to being filmed walking to Santiago de Compostela. They wanted to “capture each individual journey which would ultimately lead to an essay on life, loss and love”. Selection was therefore heavily weighted towards those experiencing heartbreak.

Unlike numerous other Camino documentaries, this one makes scant reference to its Christian associations. Most Camino Francés landmarks are ignored, such as the Sierra del Perdón (the Mountain of Forgiveness), O Cebreiro, a village rooted in Celtic spirituality, and the Mount of Joy, where pilgrims wash themselves before entering the holy city, etc.

With the exception of one church interior, places of worship go unnoticed by the film, though not necessarily by the pilgrims. Apart from a priest’s soundbite asserting that the Camino gives people strength to carry on, and a pilgrim’s remark that the Meseta plateau tests one’s spiritual resources, the directors may as well have had the six walking the Pennine Way.

Despite the directors’ alternative agenda, you can’t keep a good pilgrim down. Left to speak for themselves, they give enough indication in the film (or from press- release comments) that the walkers treat their sojourn as more than a via dolorosa. Someone wears a cross, another sports a scallop shell. The quest for spiritual understanding keeps leaking out.

Mark, “looking for answers”, is walking in memory of Maddy, his stepdaughter, who died, age 17, after a lifelong battle with cystic fibrosis. Terry, his father-in-law, who accompanies him, having walked the Camino before, knows what it means to be a pilgrim. Mark is visibly moved when told that a mass was said here on the Camino for Maddy the previous year. When the party reaches the Cruz de Ferro — a cross where pilgrims place pebbles, ribbons, and messages — Terry comments: “People who put down a 20-gramme stone feel they’ve got rid of a tonne of problems.”

Of course, not every single person undergoing the journey each year does so for religious reasons. What is wrong here is a lack of Christian context, whether one rails against or embraces it. Julie has lost her husband to pancreatic cancer, his death swiftly followed by that of their eldest son in a rafting accident. She was already planning, of all places, to walk to Santiago before this occurred.

Cheryl wanted time for self-reflection by, as she puts it, humbly walking in pilgrims’ ancient footsteps. The documentary’s first shot is Susan weeping copiously. Whether it’s her degenerative arthritis, or for personal reasons, we can’t be sure. Claude is a Camino veteran, endlessly drawn back to join all those pilgrims who have sought the Way since the tenth century.

It becomes plain to our seekers that Dag Hammarskjöld’s notion rings true: the Way finds us, rather than the reverse. By focusing almost exclusively on the grieving process, the directors downplay the strength of their subjects’ spiritual awakenings. As a result, Camino Skies feels like Hamlet without the Prince.

Released on Curzon Home Cinema, and from 1 June, also on iTunes, Sky Store, Virgin, and other platforms.


DONALD RUMSFELD, the former US Secretary of Defence, has spoken of life’s known unknowns. A collection of short films, The Uncertain Kingdom (Cert. 15), meditates on how old certainties can no longer be taken for granted. Compiled well before Covid-19 came along, it nevertheless speaks to our present circumstances.

A security guard offers a homeless gay teenager a place to stay in Isaac and the Ram, one of the short films anthologised in “The Uncertain Kingdom”

Altogether, there are 20 features — fictional and documentary — which, being online, makes it possible just to pick and choose which to view. There is a modern take on Abraham sacrificing his son in Isaac and the Ram. Hank, a skinhead, relinquishes his previous racist perceptions and protects a black gay teenager from hoodlums. Christian parallels are clearly drawn. Isaac, his life endangered, wears a cross around his neck. On the phone, his mother says she’s praying for him.

But it is Hank who moves furthest in spiritual growth. He may be the ram in the sense that he saves Isaac from slaughter. To my mind, though, he is also Abraham, in that Hank comes to question the mind-set under which he has operated until now. Isaac is God’s gift to him, an opportunity to live anew.

After so tense a watch, a little light relief might be welcome. If so, try Death Meets Lisolette. It’s directed by Guy Jenkin (author of the television comedy series Outnumbered) and stars his co-writer Andy Hamilton as an undertaker no longer able to rely on the certainty of death. The Grim Reaper (Hugh Dennis) has been locked in a barn by some prankster. The film takes place in the vicinity of Holy Trinity, Queenborough, on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent. Everyone’s suddenly becoming immortal creates several problems. Thanks to Lisolette, the vicar’s young daughter, these are resolved. Once more, where there’s death, there’s also hope.

A number of shorts are parables, none more so than Pavement, a variation on the Good Samaritan. Steve Evets (Colin in Rev.) once again plays somebody homeless. He’s literally sinking into the pavement outside an ostentatious-looking bank headquarters. People pass him by on the other side. One employee attempts to save him in a world oblivious of those being swallowed up by systemic impoverishment. It would be a neat juxtaposition to go on to view Left Coast next.

This documentary was filmed in the Blackpool area. Dedicated volunteers hand out kindness and food to help those left behind. By implication, the film is an indictment of one of the world’s richest countries’ inequities. Strong stuff but, if anything, the fictional Pavement tells it better than the factual.

Inevitably, some shorts are stronger than others in scrutinising issues such as climate change, migration, disability, homelessness, and sexuality. Even so, this anthology pertinently appraises the state of the nation. If our present crisis is an opportunity to experience and restore old values, on earth as in heaven, this compilation gives some clues to how to bring this about.

Available from 1 June on BFI Player,iTunes, GooglePlay, Amazon, and Curzon Home Cinema in two feature-length volumes. Three titles free on the BFI’s social channels.

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