Spiritual trek becomes journey of self-discovery in ‘The Way’
It’s not just any old way. The title of Emilio Estevez’s wistful road movie of self-discovery, The Way, refers to what has become the way for centuries of pilgrims—”El camino de Santiago,” the way of St. James, the route across northern Spain to the cathedral of Santiago de la Compostela in Galicia. Writer-director Estevez launches a mismatched group of modern pilgrims along this sacred site, for a variety of reasons, none of them particularly religious. But for each character, the journey takes on a spiritual aspect in the human quest for connection and meaning in life.
It may sound touchy-feely, or just plain corny, and there are moments of both in the film. And yet the movie engages, not only as a glorious travelogue of ancient villages and folkways far off the beaten track (it was shot on location in France and Spain), but in the ways the characters make little discoveries about themselves and each other as they travel along. It also may have viewers itching to follow the route, just to see who they might discover within when they leave their familiar selves behind.
It would be hard to imagine a less likely pilgrim than Tom Avery (Martin Sheen), widoweder and Los Angeles ophthalmologist whose calm, comfortable life is devoted to giving his patients eye exams and playing golf with a bunch of other doctor-duffers. Until he gets the phone call every parent dreads: that his only son, Daniel, has been killed in a freak storm in the French Pyrenees while embarking on the camino de Santiago.
Tom and Daniel were not estranged, they just had different worldviews; Daniel had a wanderlust to experience life outside his own hermetically sealed existence. (In flashback, when Tom defends “the life I chose,” Daniel sighs, “You don’t choose a life, Dad. You live one.”) During these flashbacks, and other moments when Tom is haunted by memories of his son, Estevez himself—who is Sheen’s real-life son—appears as Daniel.
In France to claim his son’s body, Tom also receives all of Daniel’s backpacking equipment and maps. The local police captain (Tchéky Karyo), who has walked the camino many times, explains its historical, cultural and religious significance, 800 kilometers through the Pyrenees and across the Spanish countryside to the northwest coast of Spain. As an act of solidarity with the son he feels he never knew well enough, Tom has the body cremated and sets out with the ashes in a little tin box to complete the walk to Santiago de la Compostela for—and with—his son.
Tom keeps his emotions tightly lidded as well, even from himself, so it’s only with the most grudging tolerance that he allows himself to be befriended by other walkers along the way. Joost (Yorick van Wageningen) is a portly, jovial Dutchman and walking pharmacy, trying to drop a few pounds. Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger) is a waspish Canadian blonde out to exorcise her private demons (although the motivation for her secret sorrow feels sketchy and unconvincing). “Jack from Ireland” (the great James Nesbitt, although he’s encouraged to play to the balcony a few too many times, here) is a blocked travel writer searching for the inspiration to start the novel he’s always wanted to write.
Gradually, these characters begin to break through each other’s defenses. Sometimes, Estevez resorts to clichés, like the scene when someone gets smashed and lambastes all the others’ shortcomings, or the twinkly Catholic priest among the pilgrims, dispensing worldly advice (and spare rosaries). But Estevez makes some interesting choices too, as the characters reveal themselves—like the amusing montage of spontaneous reactions (surprising even to themselves) when the characters are getting their passports stamped at the Santiago Cathedral, and each is asked why he or she has made the journey.
Meanwhile we get to tag along from earthy Basque inns to picturesque B&Bs, from bare-bones hostels to monasteries, across stone bridges and through medieval villages unchanged for centuries. The characters’ various epiphanies at the Cathedral are open to many interpretations, depending on the viewer’s degree of personal faith, but ultimately it’s the inner trek that counts in Estevez’s adventurous film.
★★★ (out of four) Watch film trailer >>>
With Martin Sheen, Deborah Kara Unger, and James Nesbitt. Written and directed by Emilio Estevez. An Arc Entertainment release. Rated PG-13. 121 minutes.