The Way - Movie Review

Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez Walk the Walk

Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez in The Way
Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez in The Way. Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images Entertainment

Walking the Camino de Santiago is the dream of many walkers, wanderers, and seekers. This movie takes us on the Camino (the Way of Saint James) with a father yanked out of his safe life when his son dies on the first leg of the journey. We follow him as he decides to finish his son's pilgrimage walk on the 500-mile trek. Martin Sheen stars, with his son Emilio Estevez as the son and also the writer-director of the movie.

It's a lovely movie that combines sorrow, comedy, road trip and travelogue. The script and acting are subtle and gentle, letting the power of the journey speak for itself. I recommend this movie for walkers of all ages. It debuted in American theaters on Oct. 7, 2011, mostly playing in smaller art houses. It is worth a rental once is is available on home video if it doesn't make it to a theater near you.

Walking the Camino de Santiago

Martin Sheen plays Tom, a California ophthalmologist who was opposed to his son Daniel's (Emilio Estevez) decision to quit grad school and see the world, sans cell phone. He receives the call no parent wants to hear -- his son has died in a sudden snowstorm in the Pyrenees mountains of France on the first leg of the Camino de Santiago. He flies to Spain to identify the body and learns about the Camino from the police official he must deal with. He makes an impulsive decision to take up his son's journey, despite warnings that he is older and untrained.

Tom keeps his grief to himself, he shows only a curmudgeonly exterior. He reluctantly accepts companionship from a Dutchman, Joost, who says he is walking the Camino to lose weight. Tom carries Daniel's ashes with him, leaving a handful here and there along the path. He also sees Daniel along the way, usually in situations where Daniel would appreciate that moment of the journey.

The movie was filmed in sequence along the Camino de Santiago. Director Estevez uses the scenery as a backdrop rather than making it the star, but we have plenty of sequences of walking through the changing countryside. The cinematography was not as great as I wished for, but I was left longing to trek myself through those villages and across that landscape.

You Never Walk Alone

We see the noisy sleeping dorms of the albergue guesthouses along the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain. Joost is eager to sample the local culinary delights of cheese, wine and leg of lamb. They pick up another traveling companion, an embittered Canadian divorcee, and then an overly-emotive Irish writer trying to overcome his writer's block. These characters are well-acted and don't devolve into caricatures. While there is comedy, thankfully you can't say, "four people hike the Camino and hilarity ensues."

All of these trekking companions smoke, which is realistic for Europeans, and weed is as popular with them as tobacco. Tom keeps up a determined pace, he is on his own mission.

As the writer character describes, people walk the Camino for various reasons. Physical challenge, cultural immersion, spiritual exploration or journey to repentance, all have been reasons for people to walk the Camino for over 1000 years.

There are many moments when Tom sees Daniel and only the hardest heart isn't moved. But it never feels like heavy-handed tearjerking.

The Journey to Discovery

In the past, people walked the Camino to earn repentance for their sins. Our traveling companions all find some of what they may have been seeking. There are no dramatic revelations and transformations. But the long walk gives you a chance to come to grips with past choices, traumas, and regrets.

Martin Sheen is a devout Catholic, and Estevez's choice to make Tom a lapsed Catholic rankled him, but was the right choice. It is easier for the audience to go along on the journey with someone who isn't on a blatantly religious quest.

Those who know the religious history of the Camino will appreciate all the details, while those who don't aren't hit over the head with them.

Estevez got the whole crew to make a prayer of novena to become the first film crew allowed to film inside the Cathedral de Santiago. This was a necessary part of the movie, and it is great that we see the actual Cathedral rather than using a stand-in church.

A Walker's View

I have walking friends who want to walk the Camino, and my interest was piqued when I reviewed a book of tips, "Planning Your Camino" by Beverly Robson. This movie is a good help in deciding whether this is the right walking journey to take.

This is fiction, not a documentary, so here are my gentle criticisms:

Sore points: Tom is shown as a golf-cart using golfer, who never walks when he could drive. I doubt he could have made it through the first challenging days over the Pyrenees without training.

Tom was using his son's gear, which seems to fit perfectly. Martin and Emilio do seem to be about the same size, but still, it made me wonder. I wouldn't recommend starting off in boots you haven't trained in. Where were the scenes of blisters and chafing? Ah, but this is fiction, not a documentary.

Realistic Points: Joost was using trekking poles with correct technique. There was a stream of banter about what makes it an authentic Camino experience. Don't you have to suffer? Isn't roughing it by camping or staying in a hostel dorm a necessary part of the experience? These are the sort of things walkers often debate. In a non-competitive sport, folks somehow feel the need to create "rules." I was happy that some of the characters disputed the need for suffering. The time spent walking, no matter where you lay your head, is what can clear the way to self-discovery and open you to the world around you.

Bottom Line on "The Way"

I recommend this movie to people of all ages. It's safe to take your grandkids and your grandparents. Bring tissues because you are likely to shed a tear. But you will also laugh out loud and you will be smiling most of the time. The only warning? That you will get the itch of wanderlust to take the journey yourself.

As a small note, the producer of the film is David Alexanian, who also produced and appeared in "Long Way Round" and "Long Way Down," accompanying Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman on their two around-the-world motorcycle trips. Those series are also worth a rental.

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