“Doesn’t this guy ever stop to smell the flowers?”
The Scoop: 2010 PG, directed by Emilio Estevez and starring Martin Sheen, Deborah Kara Unger and James Nesbitt.
Tagline: It is never too late to find the way.
Summary Capsule: A father in mourning walks across Spain, resulting in friendship, spirituality and wacky high-jinks. Shameless pilgrimage propaganda!
Louise’s rating: Seriously inspiring stuff, if you can get over the flaws.
Louise’s review: In 2003, Martin Sheen, devout Catholic and acclaimed actor (for Apocalypse Now, The West Wing and a weird ’70s TV movie with Linda Blair… maybe only I acclaim him for the last one…) traveled the Camino de Santiago in the company of his grandson Taylor. They journeyed from the Pyrennees through northern Spain to the town of Santiago de Compostela, a Christian pilgrimage route and destination for hundreds of years. The scenery, the people and the religious discipline so inspired Sheen that he wanted to make a documentary about it. With the involvement of his son Emilio Estevez on writing and directing duty, this became a fictional drama called The Way.
It’s got a taciturn protagonist about whom we learn very little. There are some irritating national-stereotype cartoon people as supporting characters. One section with some colourful Gypsies could definitely have been cut.
In 2007, one of my best friends invited me to join her on a walking pilgrimage over Holy Week (the week before Easter) to Lindisfarne, an island off the coast of Northumberland, and ‘holy place’ since the eighth century. In a company of strangers and friends, we would walk 120 miles on our own fair feet, carrying a large wooden cross. It was so painful, such hard work, I was miserable much of the time, and at some points I really hated my fellow pilgrims. I also felt that my celebration of Easter had never meant so much, and I’ve been back every year since (and I should point out that my fellow pilgrims were perfectly decent people, some of whom are now close friends, and it was only stress that made me hate them).
As an evocation or documentation of the pilgrimage experience, The Way is one of the best and most brilliant films I have ever seen. Okay, it’s not identical to my pilgrimage, and there should be oodles more blisters, snacks and sunburn, and no man in his sixties can walk 600 km with no preparation, but essentially it is Spot On. It has everything in it – the intense bonding of the group, the importance of food and wine, the interesting things you see on your journey, the beautiful landscape and the feeling of being very small within it. Most of all, it captures the odd, irrational, bizarre compulsion to willingly take on intense physical hardship and walk to a place. And what sort of place? A holy place. What’s a holy place? A place where prayers possess more power. Even if personally you think it’s humbug and you try to stay sophisticated and rational, resistance is futile because you can’t do anything about the sheer weight of other people’s faith. Pilgrimage is rather like the Borg in that way.
Martin Sheen is Tom Avery, a California eye doctor who likes James Taylor music and golf, and has a few friends, a comfortable life, and a frustrating relationship with his son Daniel. Emilio Estevez is Daniel, who at forty is still trying to figure out what to do with his life.
Tom receives the worst phone call any parent can receive – his son has been found dead. The body is recovered in the French Pyrennees, one day into the Camino de Santiago (the Way of St James, the traditional route to the town of Santiago de Compostela, St James of the Field of Stars). Having gone to France, Tom decides to walk the camino to Santiago himself and carry with him his son’s ashes.
If you didn’t know he was a Catholic before, that gesture there gives the game away, I think!
Along the way he meets other pilgrims, all of whom have their own reasons for walking, and they settle and coalesce into a real clique. As we pass by the notable landmarks of northern Spain, our peregrinos have good days and bad days, walk, talk, rest, fight, laugh, sing and pray their way to Compostela.
I’ve heard this film described disparagingly as worthy, ‘inspirational’ award-bait, far too long, peopled by annoying cardboard characters, and about as enjoyable as eating a box of muesli without milk. If you just don’t get the concept of pilgrimage, then you should probably listen to that reviewer, because he’s not wrong. In contrast, I think you’ll enjoy The Way if you’re a practicing Christian or Muslim with an understanding of this religious discipline madness, or if you’re a long-distance walker who can get on board with the physicality of the journey, because trust me, Estevez captured it right. Next time you can’t explain the experience in words, you can point to this film and say, “There, that right there is why I do it!” It’s as authentic as the Shroud of Turin.
Your choice. Will you walk? Buen camino either way!
- Famous pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela include Charlemagne, El Cid and Pope Calixtus II.
- La Compostela is a diploma that the Catholic Church issues to honour the pilgrims who have walked the Camino. Names are printed in Latin. To get it you must have done at least the last 100km of the Camino on foot or by horse or the last 200km if you are cycling. You will get a different colour depending on whether you have done the pilgrimage with a Christian intention – “devotionis affectu, voti vel pietatis causa” or for other reasons.
- The body of St James, one of the twelve apostles, arrived on the coast of Spain in a stone boat in the first century AD, according to legend, but Compostela did not become a site of pilgrimage until c.1000.
Tom, Jack, Sarah and Joost [singing]: It’s a long way to Santiago, it’s a long way to go!
If you liked this, try:
- The Nativity Story [for the faith]
- The West Wing [for the Sheen]
- The Lord of the Rings [for the walking]