The Way, starring Martin Sheen, was perhaps made by his son Emilio Estavez to keep his father busy. If so that was unnecessary. Seven years of playing President Bartlett on the TV series The West Wing never slowed Sheen down. He is still an actor in high demand. However, not many sons get the opportunity to direct their father. This movie was only Estavez’s second attempt to direct a motion picture, so he is still getting his moorings as a director. More likely this movie was a reason for father and son to spend a lot of quality time together. Martin Sheen is not getting any younger, and looks his seventy-three years.
In real life Sheen is a devout Catholic, so a movie that has his character walking the Way of St. James, a path through Spain and France in the Pyrenees and Basque regions of Spain blazed by the saint of the same name, must have felt right. In addition to allowing us to see a very pretty part of Europe, the movie gives us opportunities to visit various Catholic shrines, churches and cathedrals along the path.
Sheen’s character Tom is not there for sightseeing. He is there to grieve, because his headstrong son Daniel was found dead on the Way, just one day into his journey. Tom’s good life of ophthalmology and golfing with his fellow physicians in California comes to an abrupt end when he receives news of the death of his only son. The news is more tragic because he earlier lost his wife. This leaves Tom bereft of family. He is crushed by his son’s death and he flies to France to retrieve his body. With possession of his son’s backpack, he impulsively decides to complete Daniel’s walk along the long pilgrimage route, carrying his son’s cremated ashes with him to scatter in places along the route.
Walking the Way is like walking the Appalachian Trail, only not quite as long (about 800 kilometers) and with fewer boulders. For most people it takes a month or two to walk. The reasons people walk the trail vary, but few do it solely for recreation. While religious reasons are typical for walking the trail, the trail is also used by troubled souls to escape from real life for a while. The trail is often bucolic, but it can be cold in the mountains. Fortunately, there are usually hostels and a few hotels along the route for walkers.
Tom walks deliberately and methodically but he is clearly a grieving and angry man. He prefers his own company, but the trail is heavily traveled. Invariably he bumps into other solitary walkers, each of them carrying their own issues. The Dutchman Joost (Yorick van Wageningen), on the trail to lose weight so his wife will sleep with him again, is the first to befriend him. While they share some meals, their relationship is cool at best. It’s clear Tom would prefer to walk the trail mostly by himself. Fortunately, he is not the only prickly person on the trail, and he quickly encounters the Canadian Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger), who has more than a few chips on her shoulder and who mercilessly needles Tom. She is clearly working through her own anger management issues. Lastly is Jack (James Nesbitt), an Irish writer with an inconvenient case of writer’s block. The four form a loosely affiliated group of hikers that much of the time can hardly bear each other’s company. While all are bearing some personal pain, Tom is in particular the dourest. It seems he walks the Way mostly to find a reason to keep breathing. Whatever ashes of his son’s that don’t find their place along the trail he never finished will end up in the Atlantic Ocean when he finishes the walk at the coast of Spain.
This movie is really not a religious movie, although clearly it has a religious frame. This movie is really more about the spiritual ordeals of four troubled souls, each struggling with their issues, each dodging and parrying with each other uncomfortably but necessarily, for their own mental health. They do manage to at first simply accommodate each other, and later develop a sense of camaraderie.
The movie succeeds by keeping its scope narrow. There are no grand revelations in this movie, just a lot of metaphors of purgatory, made perhaps most explicit along the trail when we watch a devotee dragging a cross while two monks next to him flog their backs with a knotted cord as punishment. The truth is most of us live our lives in purgatory. Happiness, when we can find it, tends to be fleeting. The Way of St. James offers a real life path where people in pain can spend weeks simply walking and thinking. In Tom’s case, it does not offer a guaranteed means to heal his broken heart, but it proves a path that helps him move forward through his grief.
The movie also works as a metaphor for the larger world. People from disparate backgrounds can walk side by side, perhaps not happily, but grudgingly, and get glimpses into the burdens that each other carries. Our world is simply the Way of St. James, just a much longer path with endless trails and branches. But our lives turn out to have similar starts and similar ends. At the macro level, The Way simply teaches us this simple truth in the form of a story.
This modest, low budget movie is unpretentious with no grand message, but it is a rather effective journey into the souls of four people who started out as strangers to each other, and grow a bit by walking together and awkwardly sharing their grief. This makes it actually a rather rare film, with modest aspirations that simply give us windows into our own souls. Yes, it’s a modest film and a modest journey, but one worth a modest two hours of your time.
3.1 points on my four-point scale.
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