Cinema loves journeys. As a structuring tool, creating a long or short journey is one of the commonest occurrences in film; one that provides a physical beginning and end to a narrative. While a multitude of directors and genres have toyed with the potential mapping various journeys via transport – the road movie in particular – there’s something far more dramatic in showing characters that determinedly walk to where they want to go.
Whether using it as a visual tool, just as British director Alan Clarke did in his many famed walking shots, or building whole narratives around a walk, as in many films by French directors Éric Rohmer and Agnès Varda, walking has always been a powerful way to not simply explore place and geography but also to explore character.
Considering the slow pace, at least in comparison to other possible methods of getting from A to B, walking can make for surprisingly powerful and dramatic visuals on screen, whether traipsing across dangerous industrial zones, guarded national borders or simply down the busy street of a capital city.
As the new British comedy The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry sends Jim Broadbent on an epic traipse from Devon to Berwick-upon-Tweed, here are 10 films it follows in footsteps.
La notte (1961)
Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Like many of the filmmakers of the French New Wave, Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni saw the cinematic potential of characters walking through urban spaces. Unlike Rohmer and his cohorts, however, Antonioni used walking not as an opportunity for garrulous conversation but rather to emphasise the growing silence and alienation of his characters. Walking scenes feature in many of his early films, but the director presents his pessimistic best in his celebrated 1961 release La notte.
Following the growing distance between writer Giovanni (Marcello Mastroianni) and his wife Lidia (Jeanne Moreau), the film’s quiet drama is interspersed with lonely walks. After visiting their sick friend, and appalled by her husband’s infidelities, Lidia – deep in reminiscence – walks to a part of Milan where the couple’s old flat used to be, while the film concludes with the pair’s heartbreaking wander along a deserted golf course in the early morning. Walking and withdrawal went hand-in-hand in Antonioni’s films.
Le Signe du lion (1962)
Director: Éric Rohmer
If any director could be said to summarise the potential of walking on screen, it would be French director Éric Rohmer. From his earliest shorts to his later features, walking (notably in towns and cities) became a dramatic device, allowing his characters to talk. This is especially true of his debut feature film Le Signe du lion, in which the lead character’s wanderings provide the structure of the narrative.
Following architect Pierre (Jess Hahn), the film tracks his fate, fortune and foolishness as he is shown walking through Paris at various stages of the year. Initially, he believes he has inherited a great deal of money from a relative, taking out a large loan and spending unwisely. After he learns that the money has gone to a cousin instead, he’s pushed into increasingly desperate circumstances until finally forced to walk the city streets with little to his name. Although walking summery Parisian streets quickly became a regular component of French New Wave cinema as a whole, it rarely seemed an idyllic pastime, and Rohmer certainly portrays it here as a stifling and difficult necessity while Pierre waits for his fate to turn.
Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972)
Director: Werner Herzog
Few films involving walking have had characters and cast share its perils so unnervingly as in Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God. A largely fictionalised account of a trek across the Peruvian rainforests by Spanish conquistadors, Herzog’s film dramatised a relentless battle against the environment as the troops and slaves, led by Aguirre (Klaus Kinski), search in vain for the legendary El Dorado.
With the cast and crew essentially living the film as Herzog pushed through the jungles, traversed the rapids and trod the mountainsides, the journey has a feeling of genuine hopelessness and exhaustion. When it appears dangerous on screen, the likelihood is that it really was. Few walking shots in the history of cinema possess the same magnitude as the film’s opening salvo showing the large party slowly making their way down the steep side of Huayna Picchu in the fog: people rendered as ants walking a vast and unforgiving terrain.
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Walking feels existentially dangerous in Andrei Tarkovsky’s masterful 1979 film Stalker. Adapted somewhat loosely from the Strugatsky brothers’ novel Roadside Picnic, the film follows three intrepid travellers as they make their way through The Zone, a dangerous wasteland area cordoned off as there is supposedly a room where anyone’s burning desire can be granted. The stalker (Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy) is the skilled guide leading a writer (Anatoliy Solonitsyn) and a scientist (Nikolay Grinko) through the dangerous, seemingly sentient area; where a single false step could result in unimaginable horrors.
Though Tarkovsky’s film shows The Zone to be an area requiring transport to initially cross into, once there, every footstep counts. Filmed at the time in a highly contaminated area around the Estonian capital of Tallinn, Tarkovsky’s construction of the trio’s journey on foot feels both poignant and eerie. In spite of the sheer abstraction of some of the dangers supposedly thrown up by The Zone, the film’s various walking sequences have an air of genuine danger; borne out by the fact that so many associated with the film, including Tarkovsky himself, eventually fell terminally ill thanks to stepping foot in such toxic landscapes.
Le Pont du Nord (1981)
Director: Jacques Rivette
Walking in the films of Jacques Rivette often seemed like some vast game, whether it was the strange explorations of his epic Out 1 (1971) or the surreal fantasies played on Paris’s streets in Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974). Few of Rivette’s walking games, however, match his complex 1981 film Le Pont du Nord. Through its labyrinthine narrative – a mix of political thriller, mythical evocation of Ariadne’s thread, and a documentary approach to shooting Paris’s brutal industrial and modern districts – Rivette pairs mother and daughter performers Bulle and Pascale Ogier as a duo investigating a series of mysteries.
Such mysteries turn into a giant game mapped over Paris, its roads and pavements becoming mere squares on a giant board. Although at times obscure to the point of absurdity, Rivette’s film does successfully turn the act of walking Paris’s streets into a ‘jeu de l’oie’, folding the city and film in upon itself.
Director: Agnès Varda
Walking and travelling preoccupies the work of Agnès Varda. Whether on foot or by transport, Varda’s films posses a sense of what the Germans call ‘fernweh’; a melancholic necessity to wander. Any number of Varda’s could be included here to showcase her propensity for walking – Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962), in particular – but few others match the sense of the brutal physicality of walking in her great 1985 drama Vagabond.
The film follows Mona (Sandrine Bonnaire), a wanderer hiding from the police and traipsing through the wintry terrain of southern France’s wine-growing country. Her tale is a harsh one, where people and landscape combine to brutalise the woman as she walks along empty roads and frozen fields. There is a stark desolation in Varda’s unforgiving portrayal of walking, a last resort in a tragic life.
In the City of Sylvia (2007)
Director: José Luis Guerín
José Luis Guerín’s poetic and mysterious feature feels more than a little possessed by the spirit of Rohmer. Filmed around the hazy summer streets of Strasbourg, Guerín’s film takes a similarly quiet portrait of a French provincial city and uses it to tell the unusual story of a young artist (Xavier Lafitte) searching for a woman (Pilar López de Ayala) he met some years before.
Most Rohmer-esque, however, is the film’s structure, which revolves around walking the city. Guerín’s camera is patient as his characters wander Strasbourg, all the while getting deeper and deeper into mystery. The use of sound is especially important, as steps upon cobbled streets mingle with the calls of summer swifts darting above. Even when static, when the film situates itself in some of Strasbourg’s terrace cafés for example, there is still a sense of watching the world walk by, making for a deeply calming viewing experience.
Director: Pat Collins
In Pat Collins’ beautifully meditative 2012 feature, walking lies at the heart of an unusual quest: to record soundscapes with as little man-made sound present as possible. In an unusual mixture of fact and fiction, sound engineer Eoghan (Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhríde) is shown returning to his homeland of rural Ireland as he walks into the wilderness in search of the sound of human absence.
Much of the film is structured into chapters examining individual landscapes and the surprising encounters that spring from them. The character believes that, unlike in the busy Berlin where he now lives, walking deep into the landscape away from urban sprawl will lead him to the solitude he seeks for his work. In fact, Eoghan’s task is constantly interrupted by the surprising number of people also walking and working in such places. But Collins’ film remains an optimistic and nostalgic one; where it is the journey rather than the desired destination that gives solace to a man daring to look at his past.
The Golden Dream (2013)
Director: Diego Quemada-Díez
Selected for the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes in 2013, Diego Quemada-Diez’s powerful drama The Golden Dream focuses on the walking journey of three Guatemalan teenagers as they attempt to cross the American border. Although the length of the journey naturally means other modes of transport are required at various times, Quemada-Diez’s portrayal of the journey is often at its strongest when focusing on the hard slog of walking the difficult terrain.
With its sense of danger and risk, The Golden Dream feels like an ancient parable, but is starkly brought back down to earth as the characters face a range of problems. Unlike in ancient myths of epic journeys, their trials are deeply human rather than mythical in character, from violent border patrols to unscrupulous human traffickers. Perhaps the dream of a bright future at the end of their arduous walk may have been fantastical after all.
By Our Selves (2015)
Director: Andrew Kötting
Andrew Kötting’s surreal travelogue retreads the melancholic meander taken by English poet John Clare from a mental asylum in Epping to Northampton in 1841. Part-essay film, part dramatic recreation – with Toby Jones playing the troubled poet searching for lost love, Mary Joyce – By Our Selves tracks the 90 miles Clare walked in the four days of a dramatic mental episode. Kötting brings in the thoughts of cultural figures such as Alan Moore and Iain Sinclair, all the while creating a heady, disorientating atmosphere for a story ultimately about mental anguish. Especially poignant is the fact that Jones is playing the poet just as his father Freddie Jones did for an episode of BBC Omnibus, John Clare: “I Am…” (1970).
What marks Kötting’s film out from other similar projects (including the director’s previous work) is the way its geography and walk allows for the unusual cultural and historic synchronicities to bubble up almost supernaturally. Walking never felt so lost or so profoundly sad on screen.
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