For moviegoers flocking to see Jean-Marc Vallée’s film adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, this beautiful Film Comment video essay on pilgrimages, written by Max Nelson and deftly edited by Violet Lucca, comes at a good time. It’s helpful to take a look back at cinematic pilgrimages from the past, as shown here in the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger, Chris Marker (incidentally considered by many to be the father of the video essay), John Ford, and Claire Denis. Doing so raises the question: What is a pilgrimage, after all? If the journey is, as it is in these films, secular, rather than a religious trek, then what’s the significance of the destination? Often that destination has profound meaning for the traveler which may not exist for anyone else. In Tarkovsky’s Stalker, the pilgrims seek a solution in magic; in Powell and Pressberger’s A Canterbury Tale, the soldiers march towards a military victory, however that might be defined; Marker, in delving into the Tarkovsky film at hand to distort it through his own experimental methods in Sans Soleil, could be said to be progressing towards the culmination of a vision, inch by inch; the widows traveling to France during the years following World War I in John Ford’s Pilgrimage are journeying towards acknowledgment of grief; the protagonist of Claire Denis’ The Intruder has removed himself to Tahiti to cope with guilt and self-disappointment over poor life choices. None of these destinations are tangible, tied though they may be to physical locales. The destinations seem to be points within, rather than without. The image we see most often in the samples collected here is a long look, off into the distance. What is that look at, precisely? Out to sea, up into the sky, into the eaves of an ancient cathedral: regardless of the actual endpoint of the gaze, this essay suggests that what the figures in these films are all looking at is the enormity of their journey, and what they are all feeling is the sense that the journey is larger than their capability to grasp it.
Watch: A Video Essay on Pilgrims in Film: Tarkovsky, Powell and Pressberger, Marker, Ford, Denis