The Way Review
I first heard of the Camino de Santiago maybe ten years ago, and only because I was planning a trip to Burgos while staying with friends in the north of Spain. I was surprised that I hadn’t heard before of El Camino, or The Way of St James, a monumental walk of medieval origin which extends for 800km from the Pyrenees in France to Santiago de Compostela in the north-west of Spain and which apparently attracts thousands of pilgrims every year, but presumed that it was because I wasn’t a particularly religious person of the type that undertakes such pilgrimages. The Way, I was told, attracts more however than just religious fanatics, and people from all over the world undertake the long and arduous journey under their own steam for their own personal reasons.
That’s the case in this film with Tom Avery (Martin Sheen), an American ophthalmologist in his sixties, a lapsed Catholic with no particular religious convictions, who uncharacteristically and impulsively decides to undertake the pilgrimage when he receives news that his 40 year-old son Daniel (Sheen’s real-life son and the film’s director Emilio Estevez) has died. Daniel had been on a back-packing trip around the world, having dropped out of his doctorate studies much to his father’s displeasure, and had just commenced the first stage of the Camino de Santiago when he was killed in a storm in the Pyrenees. Travelling to Europe to collect Daniel’s remains, Tom decides to have his son cremated and complete the journey on his behalf, carrying his ashes with him along the way.
The Way, as you ought to be able to guess from the above description, fits in its own way into the well-worn template of the road movie, and while Emilio Estevez’s film doesn’t entirely escape the conventions of this type of film, it does bring an interesting spin to it. Road-movies tend to be pilgrimages of a sort anyway since they involve characters going on a spiritual or life-changing experience over the course of their journey, but the difference here is that while this particular journey is designed for just such a test of inner mettle and personal reflection, Tom doesn’t set out on the Way wanting or expect or achieve any such revelations. The reasons why he picks up Daniel’s walking equipment and begins the walk are not clear to him at the start, but one supposes that it initially comes from a sense of fatherly duty, of helping his son get to a destination that he can no longer achieve by himself. Inevitably however, with it being such a significant action, Tom will undoubtedly undergo many trials along the way.
Undergo many trials – that’s one way of putting it. Those trials come in many forms; in natural hazards that Tom runs up against along the way – incidents that potentially could bring his journey to a premature end – but they also come, not unexpectedly, in the form of other people that Tom encounters along the way. Each of those characters – a Dutchman (Yorick van Wageningen) with an over-fondness for food, a Canadian (Deborah Kara Unger) with a smoking habit and an attitude problem, and an Irish writer (James Nesbitt) with writer’s block – have their own reasons for making the journey; those that they tell the others about and the real issues behind them that they don’t speak about. And, as you would expect, they’re involved in some amusing incidents and they help each other as well as get on each other’s nerves.
Nothing new there, and with such a subject being made by a real-life father/son team, the film has the potential to be a bit over-sentimental, particularly as Daniel is “present” with Tom at various stages along the route. Yet, in spite of the clichés, some tedious AOR music sequences featuring the likes of Coldplay and Alanis Morissette, and in spite of the not particularly deep characterisation and not unexpected revelations, The Way does have a human heart that makes the situation – beautifully filmed on location in Spain and the Pyrenees – light, humorous and engaging in a way that makes it relatable to a popular audience. And in place of the path of sentimentality that the film could have followed, we have rather a movie that, like the pilgrimage that is undertaken by thousands of people every year, has the potential to be genuinely inspirational and carry a lot of personal meaning.