I caught this one up on Netflix instant. Worth a watch.
To San Jose? Not exactly.
Tom Avery, a widowed opthalmologist from California, is told that his son Daniel has died while on the Camino de Santiago, a Christian pilgrimage walk of 800 kilometres from the French Pyrenees to the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela. After arriving in France to claim Daniel’s body Tom, overcome by his grief, instead decides to have his son cremated and then carry the ashes to Santiago himself. Initially reluctant to engage with other pilgrims, Tom slowly becomes part of a rag-tag group walking the trail together, and begins to come to terms with the death of his son.
Back in 2003, between seasons of The West Wing, Martin Sheen and his grandson Taylor drove the route of the Camino. They were inspired by the experience to the point where Taylor’s father Emilio Estevez was convinced to make a movie about it. What could have been a low key documentary about the Camino instead became this film: a two-hour meditation of grief, loss, personal connections and spiritual identity. Oh yeah, and it’s really funny.
In case you’re thinking that this is a religious film for religious people, no it’s not. Outside of this site I subscribe to the theory of “if you can’t say anything nice, keep your damn mouth shut” (or words to that effect) which is why I generally don’t talk about religion. While The Way is obviously built around a traditional Catholic pilgrimage – basically walking for five weeks to get to Mass – there is no proselytising. The movie recognises that it is not uncommon in this increasingly secular world for people to walk the walk with no religious motivation at all. You don’t have to be Catholic to enjoy a nice stroll in the country.
Estevez himself has a brief appearance as Daniel before disappearing back behind the camera to direct his own father as Tom, and it is Sheen who completely dominates the film with his disarmingly low-key and vulnerable performance. He is the beating heart of this movie for every one of its 120 minutes. If you are of the younger generation that only knows him from The West Wing, be aware that this is not Jed Bartlet Goes For A Wander. Also, if you really only know Martin Sheen from The West Wing, get thee to thine DVD rental agent of choice forthwith! Start with Badlands, Apocalypse Now and The Dead Zone. You can skip Spawn.
It is once Tom starts interacting with his fellow pilgrims that the humour starts to come to the fore, mostly of the deadpan sarcasm persuasion. Yorick van Wageningen is unrecognisable from his most recent performance as the vile Nils Bjurman (in Fincher’s Dragon Tattoo adaptation), here playing the fun-loving Joost from Amsterdam, a man with an apparently endless supply of weed and an almost child-like enthusiasm for both the trip and the various parties he expects to find along the way. The two are soon joined by the sharp-tongued but emotionally distant Sarah from Canada, played by Deborah Kara Unger and the blocked Irish writer Jack (James Nesbitt). Most of the film is just these four – and occasionally one or two others – just walking and sometimes talking, but the rapport and chemistry they all share really draws you in to these characters. I don’t know how long it took to assemble his cast, but for me it is one of the things about his movie that Estevez can be most proud of. Watching these four people, each damaged in their own way, open up to each other and become first friends then almost an impromptu family is the emotional heart of the film.
Estevez and Sheen’s stated intent when producing the film was to honour and promote the pilgrimage itself, and in that they have succeeded. Juanmi Azpiroz’s camerawork in particular makes the trail into almost a fifth member of the group. The majesty of the Spanish, French and Basque countryside is captured in all its glory. Or let me put it another way: I’m sorely tempted to walk the Camino myself someday, and you all know how I feel about religion. But like I said, this isn’t about religion, the same way that Escape to Victory isn’t about football. No matter your religious views (if any), I would encourage you to find The Way.