In his first film since The Thee of Wooden Clogs, Ermanno Olmi has fashioned a fascinating, richly nuanced and parabolic meditation upon the Journey of the Magi. Although Cammina Cammina (Italy) is based on the Scriptural account of the tale, it also incorporates thematic elements from other sources. The movie, whose characters are played by non-professional actors, has a simplicity and ambiance that brings to mind Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew.
When Mel, an astronomer-priest, spies a new star in the sky, he interprets its arrival as a sign of the coming of a savior-king who will bring justice and goodness to earth. A band of pilgrims assemble to begin a journey to pay tribute. They include the rich and the poor, the young and the old, soldiers and peasants, and a fallen woman. Their trek across the desert, along ocean shores, over mountains, and through forests is an arduous one, and many turn back. A rickety bridge and a cynical mountain man test the faith of those who persevere.
Eventually the pilgrims join up with two kings and their followers. They cope with the demands of a treacherous ruler and finally wind up near a small village where a young mother has just given birth to a son. Could this normal baby boy be the Promised One? Mel believes and along with the others, presents his gifts.
Frightened of the soldiers amassing in the area and convinced of the violence to come, Mel claims to have had a dream in which angels warned him to depart. Later the old priest is condemned by an ardent pilgrim for abandoning the savior-king. Mel believes his mission is to build up temples to celebrate the coming of the Holy One. While the rulers' soldiers slaughter the innocents, the sojourners go their separate ways, unsure of what they have experienced or learned.
The pilgrims in T.S. Eliot's poem "The Journey of the Magi" ask: "Were we led all the way for Birth or Death?" Olmi's film compels us to consider the different responses human beings exhibit when confronted by the mysteries of grace. The character in Cammina Cammina with the greatest sense of wonder is Rupo, a small boy who serves as Mel's servant: he always asks the right questions.
Do dogma and the institutionalization of religion bring death to the spirit? Are awe and seeing the world with fresh eyes the seed bed for spiritual birth? Travel with the pilgrims in this rare screen adventure and find the answers for yourself. The journey is well worth taking.