It’s an old story: a pilgrim, or a group of pilgrims, leave a place with which they’re familiar and travel—usually with many pauses and digressions—to a place they’ve marked as sacred. The sacred place in question is usually very old. Sometimes, it no longer exists, or is present only to the seeker. In some cases, the pilgrimage is a sort of penance, an atonement on the pilgrim’s part for some earlier sin. In others, it’s a form of receiving blessings. In some times and places, it would have been called a bid for grace.

In Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (79), the journey is from a burnt-out nuclear wasteland to a lush, deceptively Edenic wilderness—The Zone—to which pilgrims travel in the hope of finding a fabled room that grants its visitors’ deepest desires. The first leg of the trip is in a rail car. For five minutes we watch the movie’s allegorical heroes—a writer, a physicist and the “stalker” they’ve hired to guide them—move along a one-way track. Then, with a cut, we are in the Zone.

All pilgrimage movies, to some extent, depend on the creation of a space like this: foreign, unfamiliar, unsettled and unsettling. Part of what makes the pilgrimage film so episodic and friendly to digression is that its characters are always in the process of exploring a place at which they’re not yet at home, surveying a new terrain.

Another way of putting this is that the pilgrimage film has a sort of rambling, essayistic streak. It’s perhaps this that drew Chris Marker, in his great essay film Sans Soleil (83), to the image of Tarkovsky’s Zone, represented here by a computer program that reproduces recent images as if they were “already affected by the moss of time.”

“The moss of time” is also the subject of what might be the greatest of all pilgrimage movies: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s World War II fable A Canterbury Tale (49). Here, the pilgrims are a member of the Women’s Land Army, a stiff-necked British military official and a folksy Midwestern sergeant. All bound independently for Canterbury, they’ve been delayed in a tiny, bucolic village in Kent. In this scene, they hear a sinister town magistrate lecture about the history of the local pilgrim’s road.

What the pilgrims in A Canterbury Tale are after is a kind of reconciliation between the present and the past. The British sergeant is an organist who settled for playing movie houses and picture-shows. His blessing, then, would be to come to terms with his youthful ambitions. The American sergeant’s would be a renewal of a lost love; the land girl’s, a reunion with her husband, killed in the line of duty. What they want, essentially, is a chance to live briefly in eternity, in a space where gaps in time and space are narrowed and collapsed. And in the movie’s extended climax, set in and around the Canterbury cathedral, they get just that.  

As in A Canterbury Tale, the central journey in John Ford’s Pilgrimage is a response, or adaptation, to war. In this case, however, it’s a matter of doing penance. An iron-willed Midwestern mother chooses to have her son enlist rather than marry the woman he loves. 

After he’s killed in battle, she joins a group of American war widows on a trip to France and eventually atones for having rejected him. Most dramatically, she helps a Parisian couple marry.

One thing that Ford’s movie shares with A Canterbury Tale is its rambling, digressive openness, its tendency to give lots of space to bit characters and lots of time to seemingly mundane exchanges. It’s hard to imagine any comparable film today, for instance, giving such attention to the way elderly women speak to each other.

In both cases, these digressions turn out to be doing much more work for the movie than they might seem. At the heart of both these films is the idea that to going on a pilgrimage means having to set up provisional living spaces along the way—making a temporary, portable home with whomever your traveling-companions happen to be.

The protagonist of Claire Denis’ The Intruder (04), one of the great 21st-century pilgrimage films, is, in contrast, completely alone. When he arrives in the South Pacific late in the film, it’s to do penance—for having made shady money off the suffering of others, for accepted a black-market heart transplant, for having abandoned a son he never knew, and for having shut out the one son he did. As played by Michel Subor, he carries himself like an exiled king.

Looking out at Tahiti, he peers into his past, in the form of footage taken from one of Subor’s rare early films. In the gap between the old footage and the new, he’s become an intruder in his own head, a pilgrim without a road.