Cinematic excess is harnessed to savagely entertaining satirical effect in Javier Fesser's dazzling, idiosyncratic "Camino," which manages to mix styles and genres without losing its way.

Cinematic excess is harnessed to savagely entertaining satirical effect in Javier Fesser’s dazzling, idiosyncratic “Camino,” which manages to mix styles and genres without losing its way. Often hilarious despite dealing with a dying young girl, often gruelingly dark despite being a celebration of teen love, the pic also launches an unbridled attack on organized religion and false consolations offered by unquestioning faith. A heady brew, “Camino” breaks the rules while carrying the viewer happily through a visually spectacular two and a half hours. Despite — or perhaps thanks to — inviting controversy, offshore prospects seem solid.

Fesser’s previous two features, both cartoonish, revel in the childlike. This time the focus is on a child, saintly 11-year-old Camino (Nerea Camacho). The story is loosely based on real-life Alexia Gonzalez Barrios, who is in the process of beatification.

Camino suffers from neck pains which are initially misdiagnosed, but which turn out to be a sign of terminal cancer. Camino’s mother Gloria (Carme Elias) is a Catholic fundamentalist who has taught her daughter she’s a gift from God who must one day be returned. For Gloria, Camino’s illness is God’s will.

Gloria’s husband, Jose (Mariano Venancio) vacillates between Gloria’s religious passion and imposing his own views. Meanwhile, Camino’s sister Nuria (Manuela Velles) is being educated — read “brainwashed” — by the Opus Dei, the influential Catholic organization that preaches everyday life can be the path to sainthood.

To her mother’s dismay, Camino wants to join a theater group with her friends Elena (Miriam Raya) and Jesus (Lucas Manzano). Camino has a crush on Jesus, and, as her physical condition declines, she sustains herself by thinking about him. When she uses his name in adoring terms, her words are assumed to be religious.

Visually, the pic’s styles match its moods. Interiors are often hand-held lensed, pulling auds into the action and suggesting the domestic and medical horrors being inflicted on Camino are brutally real. The inclusion of graphic surgery shots, however, may disturb some viewers.

Symbol-rich fantasy sequences, where the pic comes closest to Fesser’s previous films, are projections of Camino’s mind while she is in the hospital and involve a terrifying guardian angel and a top-hatted man called Mr. Meebles (Emilio Gavira). The script’s understanding of pre-adolescent psychology is entirely convincing.

Perfs are superb across the board, with Elias in particular resisting the temptation to lapse into mere caricature and creating a wonderfully complex character as a result. The radiant-eyed, debutante Camacho has a joyous screen presence, suffusing her role with a transcendent saintliness that makes the priests eager to canonize her.

Editing is tops, particularly through the extended sequence of the final reel, which successfully negotiates the dramatic tightrope between intense hospital scenes and broad comedy. Dramatic music, often lushly orchestrated strings, is often deliberately over-the-top. Pic’s title is a ref to a book by Opus Dei’s founder.

Camino

Spain

Production

A Peliculas Pendelton, Mediapro production in association with TVE, TVC. (International sales: Wild Bunch, Paris.) Produced by Luis Manso, Jaume Roures. Executive producer, Javier Mendez. Directed, written, edited by Javier Fesser.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Alex Catalan; music, Rafa Arnau, Mario Gosalvez; art director, Cesar Macarron; sound (Dolby Digital), Jose Maria Bloch. Reviewed at San Sebastian Film Festival (competing), Sept. 24, 2008. Running time: 143 MIN.

With

Nerea Camacho, Carme Elias, Mariano Venancio, Manuela Velles, Ana Gracia, Lola Casamayor, Lucas Manzano, Pepe Ocio, Claudia Otero, Jordi Dauder, Emilio Gavira, Miriam Raya.

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