Tom Avery takes some needling on the golf course for riding in the golf cart: He says he’s tired, but his fellow players say he’s old and lazy. Played by 71-year-old Martin Sheen, Tom is not a prime candidate for strapping on a North Face backpack in France and heading up into the Pyrenees on the beginning of a 500-mile journey to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain.
That the long journey — the Camino Francés (French Way), the most popular route of el Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James) — is an important Catholic pilgrimage route to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, where tradition holds St. James’ remains are buried, makes Tom, a lapsed Catholic, an even less likely candidate.
“What for?” is Tom’s brusque response to a solicitous priest who asks Tom if he would like to pray with him. Tom has just learned that his son Daniel (Emilio Estevez) has been found dead in the mountains on the French-Spanish border. It is a time when many people turn to prayer, even lapsed Catholics. Then again, the fact that Tom is in a church talking to a priest in the first place might say something.
Martin Sheen was born Ramón Gerardo Antonio Estévez, the son of a Spanish-immigrant father and an Irish-immigrant mother. Having trouble finding acting work with his father’s last name, he re-branded himself with his mother’s nationality, taking his stage name in honor of Archbishop Fulton Sheen. Martin Sheen says he has always regretted not acting under his real name, and it is presumably some comfort to him that his son Emilio kept the family name professionally.
The Way, written and directed by Emilio, is a father-son collaboration in honor of the family’s Galician roots. It is also a dialogue of sorts between Martin’s revived Catholic faith and Emilio’s secular agnosticism. The project was Martin’s idea, after walking the Camino several years ago. Martin brought the proposal to Emilio, who structured it as a father-son narrative and gave Tom his resolutely lapsed worldview.
In the movie, the impetus to walk the Camino goes the other way, from son to father. Tom arrives in St. Jean Pied de Port to identify Daniel’s remains and collect his belongings, and he learns that his son had just embarked on the pilgrimage route.
In a curious creative decision, the gendarme who calls Tom in the United States and meets him at the airport is a devout believer — one of the very few believers Tom will encounter. The officer has walked the Camino more than once, so Tom is quickly brought up to speed on what Daniel was doing when he died and why his possessions consist solely of a backpack and its contents. The officer is even obliging enough to suggest the possibility of cremating Daniel to make it easier to transport him back to the States.
At that point, it is a very short leap to Tom’s next move. He remembers one of his last conversations with Daniel, in which Daniel suggested that the two of them travel to Europe together, a father-son trip. Well, Daniel has won. The backpack is ready. There is a poignant sequence intercutting between the process of cremation — the casket going into the incinerator; the box of ashes — and Tom beginning his journey into the Pyrenees, hiking into the mist. Father and son will make the pilgrimage together, after all.
Tom isn’t interested in companionship, but there are always pilgrims on the Camino, and there are only so many ways to walk from St. Jean Pied de Port to Santiago de Compostela. This practically guarantees that Tom will see a number of the same people over and over. There is no shortage of colorful characters, both locals and pilgrims. Except for the principals, the pilgrims and the locals are all people the crew encountered on the Camino. It doesn’t all ring true, but there are nice moments along the way.
I like the cheeky chorus with which American pilgrims are welcomed at an inn not far from the Spanish border and the spirited debate at supper that night as to whether Charlemagne and the Christians or the Arabs were responsible for Roland’s death. It would be nice to think that such moments were spontaneous, not staged, or at least that real pilgrims might have similar experiences. I’m dubious that a real pilgrim on the Camino will encounter anyone like Ramón, an eccentric innkeeper with a unique stamp for pilgrim’s passports.
Eventually, a number of fellow pilgrims become Tom’s regular companions. There is Joost (Yorick van Wageningen), a heavyset, garrulous Dutchman with a ready supply of controlled substances. If Joost conforms to stereotypes about the Dutch, Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger), a spiteful, chain-smoking Canadian, probably has a chip on her shoulder about her nationality’s reputation for courtesy and politeness, and actively subverts it. She doesn’t mind stereotyping others, though, obnoxiously calling Tom “Boomer” and speculating on his personal failings after knowing him for less than a minute. Then there’s Jack (James Nesbitt), an eccentric Irish writer who seems to have been out on the Camino a bit too long and makes speeches about the road as metaphor that are probably more explicit than one wants in a movie like this.
Like many pilgrims on the Camino, none of these wayfarers are there for expressly religious reasons. Joost wants to lose weight for his brother’s third wedding. Jack, who has a characteristically Irish ax to grind against the Church and won’t even set foot in a church building, is merely writing a travel guide. Sarah says she plans to lay down her cigarettes at the feet of St. James at the Cathedral, though she has deeper issues that may be closer to her real reason for being there. Of the four principals, she may be the one most clearly doing penance, unless it is Tom.
Is there grace for such pilgrims as these? Perhaps, but it may not take the form they seem to be seeking. At the end of the road, some viewers might feel let down at what has not changed for the main characters, but perhaps this is to miss the change that matters most. Emilio has said that the film is “pro-people, pro-life.” So it is, in more ways than one.
I would have liked to see the film dig a little deeper, both into the experience of the Camino and the souls of its characters. I’m sure there are many welcoming inns and friendly villages on the Camino, and I’m glad the movie shows that. On the other hand, I doubt the Camino has any shortage of hucksters hawking religious junk and dubious relics, Old-World beggars and panhandlers living on the charity of pilgrims, and professional thieves more heartless than anyone our pilgrims encounter — not to mention garden-variety jerks who don’t turn out to be lovable once you get to know them. I would have liked to see some of that, too.
One way to look at Tom’s pilgrimage is to say that he is looking for his son on the journey that Daniel was planning to take. The Way suggests, with effective simplicity, that Tom does find Daniel, in a sense. Does he ever feel a sense of disappointment, of not finding Daniel? Tom is not the sort to share his feelings, and the movie respectfully allows him to keep his distance.
Ultimately, The Way is a valentine to the Camino —and that’s enough. I appreciate the film’s exploration of the protocols and the rituals of the Camino: the credencial (pilgrim’s passport) that must be stamped at various checkpoints along the way to verify the pilgrimage route at the end of the journey; the scallop shell that some pilgrims carry, with various symbolic meanings attached to it; the final approach to the statue of St. James on one’s knees; and so forth. I have no doubt that many viewers will resolve to walk the Camino at some point in their lives after watching the film. Count me among them.
If there is a glimpse of transcendence in The Way, it is at the climax, in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. While the film stops well short of a profession of faith, it does offer an affirmation of sorts of the human value, especially in times of crisis, of some kind of faith or religious heritage, and in particular of Catholic cultural accoutrements, of traditions like pilgrimages and the sign of the cross, and of beautiful cathedrals and such. This is a salutary thought, as far as it goes, and a welcome one in our cultural moment.
The catchphrase “spiritual but not religious” is among the most glib and insipid pieties of our times. The Way, with its centuries of tradition, its ritual gestures and formalities, its institutions and symbols, its physically demanding regimen, and its cultural, Christian and Catholic particularity, is a gratifying reminder of how religion grounds and enriches us in ways that “spirituality” can’t. “Spirituality” has no traditions or rituals, makes no demands, gives us nothing to do in times of crisis. Spirituality itself points beyond spirituality to religion — a point The Way makes with unforced persuasiveness.
P.S. Well-instructed Catholics may be taken aback by the manner in which Tom seeks to honor his son’s final intention of traveling the Camino. Tom, a lapsed Catholic, presumably isn’t aware of his obligations under Church law, and while it might or might not make a difference if he did know, his actions don’t necessarily reflect a rejection of the relevant Catholic beliefs, and we need not judge him — or the film — harshly in this connection, though, of course, this example shouldn’t be followed by Catholics. See the “Content Advisory” for a slightly spoilerific catechetical note.
Register film critic Steven D. Greydanus blogs at NCRegister.com.
Content Advisory: Smoking and drug references; brief bathroom humor; some objectionable language. Note: Current canon law permits cremation, but requires that the ashes be buried as a symbol of the Christian hope of resurrection. Scattering the ashes of the deceased is not permitted.