El Camino de Santiago — The Way of St. James — is a pilgrimage to the Galician cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, where tradition has it that the remains of St. James the Apostle are buried. There are many routes, but one of the most common is an eight-hundred kilometer trek from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port on the French side of the Pyrenees, over the mountains, and along the Spanish coast to the northeastern corner where Spain juts out over Portugal into the Atlantic. Obviously the Camino’s origins are religious, but now many people walk the path for many reasons. Inspired by his own son’s travel, Emilio Estevez has made The Way about one man’s journey along the road, and it may just be the masterpiece of his career.
Thomas Avery (Estevez’ father Martin Sheen) is an ophthalmologist in California with a comfortable practice. His age is never quite made clear, but he’s somewhere into his sixties, and comfortable in his life, though he’s been alone since his wife died and his son, Daniel (Estevez) drifted away. But then he receives word that his son has died in the Pyrenees, and he must travel to pick up his remains. Upon arrival, Tom learns that Daniel had just set out on the Camino when he was caught in a storm. He identifies Daniel at the morgue, picks up Daniel’s worldly possessions — mostly hiking gear — and prepares to return home when he makes a decision. Though Tom isn’t particularly religious, and though he may be the sort to take a golf cart from one side of the fairway to the other, he will walk the road for Daniel. He has Daniel’s body cremated and packed into a box from which he will scatter the ashes along the way.
Tom sets out alone, but there’s only so many beaten tracks and he picks up fellow travelers. A garrulous Dutchman named Joost (Yorick van Wageningen) turns up like a bad penny; a sardonic Canadian named Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger) teases Tom about being a baby boomer; “Jack from Ireland” (James Nesbitt) inadvertently throws a walking stick at the group. Each has their own reasons for walking the road, though sometimes the reason isn’t always what they claim, nor indeed even what they think it is. Few of them are inherently religious, and we’re reminded that The Way is about more than a mere religious observation, whatever its roots.
The road leads through some gorgeous countryside in northern Spain, and some beautiful old cities and villages, which Estevez captures simply, letting the images speak calmly of the journey. Sheen gives one of his finest performances; his own Catholic faith may have drawn him to the project, but he keeps Tom quietly and respectfully agnostic. As he walks he thinks of Daniel, and it’s impossible not to see his own bittersweet, fatherly compassion towards his own prodigal son.
And that’s really what the Way is about. Walking the Camino is an extended form of a retreat, though historically it’s more like a retreat is a shortened version of a pilgrimage. It’s a chance to escape from your own comfortable routines, to give yourself time to think on what’s important in your life. Pilgrims bring their anguish to the head of the road and — insha’Allah; God willing; with luck — by the end they may find some kind of healing. In The Way, Estevez presents us with a film as worthy of contemplation as its namesake; one which reminds us that there are many ways and many roads, but we who walk don’t have to walk them alone.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.