The Way: Martin Sheen as a grieving father attempting to complete a pilgrimage begun by his son pauses at the spot where the young man died.
As an American eye doctor setting off to walk eight hundred kilometers along the northwestern coast of Spain in last year’s little gem of a movie The Way, now out on DVD, Martin Sheen gets off on the wrong foot.
He begins his trek at a brisk, determined pace as if he’s intent on covering the whole distance by evening and so, naturally, he’s nearly worn himself out by mid-afternoon.
He tries it again the next day and again has to give up for the day earlier than he wants to and not as far as long as he feels he needs to be.
He keeps trying. He marches like a soldier. He strolls. He picks up his feet and he scuffs along. He races forward, then he drifts backwards. At one point he adopts the hip-waggling strut of a shopping mall power walker. But he simply can’t find his stride.
The route he’s following is not arbitrary and it’s not one he’s laid out for himself. He is following a path pilgrims of all faiths and driven by all kinds of motives, some spiritual, have followed for over a thousand years. El Camino de Santiago. The Way of St James. Tom Avery is taking a journey his son Daniel, a perpetual grad student who abandoned his studies and left his dissertation to finish itself in order to travel the world, began. But Daniel had an accident his first day out. We’re not given the details but he appears to have died in a fall, having gotten lost in a mountain fog and wandered off a cliff. Tom came over to bring Daniel’s body home but impulsively decided to walk the Camino in his son’s stead.
He’s outfitted for the walk with what Daniel’s left behind. He wears Daniel’s clothes. He carries Daniel’s gear on his back. He’s consults Daniel’s guide books and maps.
Riding in his backpack is a box with Daniel’s ashes which he scatters in handfuls at stops along the route he hopes would have meant something to his son.
But although he’s literally walking in Daniel’s shoes, Tom can’t see what he thinks Daniel must have been out to see or feel what he supposes Daniel would have felt. In a sense, Tom has set out to catch up with his son, but the farther along he goes the farther Daniel seems to be out of reach. Father and son were not on the best of terms when Daniel left the United States. They were apparently in the habit of relating through Tom’s wife and Daniel’s mother and when she died a few years ago they couldn’t figure out how to talk to each other directly. Tom is walking the Camino as a form of penance. He’s trying to make things up with Daniel and to make up for things. And that’s the reason he’s having so much trouble. He’s walking the wrong way, backwards.
He’s trying to walk his way into the past, and he’s doing it for Daniel.
But as was told at the start by a former pilgrim, you don’t walk the Camino for anyone else. You do it for yourself.
And, since The Way is a road movie, the point isn’t the destination, it’s the journey.
It’s not until Tom realizes that this is his pilgrimage that he begins to really move forward. And he doesn’t do that until he finds himself in the company of others.
I think I’ve made it sound as if The Way is two hours of scenes of Martin Sheen walking alone. There are a lot of shots of Sheen walking, alone but usually in company, through some beautiful scenery and through picturesque villages and cityscapes. The Way is a very pretty movie. But although Tom would prefer to be left alone with his thoughts and his grief, wherever he stops for the night he meets and becomes friendly with assortments of fellow pilgrims and local characters, and, against his will and his wishes, he picks up strays as he goes.
First is Yost, a jolly Dutchmen who claims to be doing the Camino in order to lose weight but who really seems to be on an eight hundred kilometer cheese and wine-tasting tour. Then Tom meets Sarah, a Canadian with a grudge against the world, who says she’s there as some sort of grand farewell to her addiction to cigarettes. And then they encounter Jack, an Irish travel writer on assignment who’s in a panic because he’s developed a virulent case of writer’s block.
It’s a not a surprise that they are looking for something more profound and more spiritual than what they claim to be, and that includes Tom too.
Not in the mood to make friends and suspecting they need and want help from him he doesn’t want to give, Tom does his best to shake them. When it begins to dawn on him, that they think he needs and wants help from them, he tries even harder to lose them.
I’m not giving anything away when I tell you he has a lot of trouble managing this.
The Way was written, directed, and produced by Sheen’s real life son, Emilio Estevez, who appears as Daniel in flashbacks and Tom’s imagination. Even with the unavoidable (but of course welcome) the sprawling and powerful landscapes the camera takes in and against which the characters are reduced to miniatures, The Way is a small-scale, intimate movie. Although they are usually seen outdoors and on the move, the characters can’t get away from each other---they don’t want to---they stick together and are stuck together and, stuck together, they might as well be stuck together in a bus station, a saloon, a hospital ward, or a fox hole as hiking among sheep and goats through the Spanish countryside. You might have caught that I’ve described the settings of some famous plays and as in a play the characters don’t have much to do except tell each other (and the audience) about themselves. It’s one The Way’s strengths that the screenplay doesn’t usually get chatty. It’s a character study with the focus on Sheen’s performance as Tom, and Estevez has built his film around his father’s strengths, particularly his ability to play grumpy and cuddly side by side. Sheen started his career imitating James Dean. He’s finishing it doing Spencer Tracy.
As Tom, he has to make appealing and sympathetic a prickly man in a really, really bad mood. Tom is a doctor and Sheen captures that side of him his patients love, a side he apparently couldn’t show his son, the side that sees what’s wrong and diagnoses and prescribes but gently, with warmth and humor based on affection, and without judgment. He growls and grumps a lot, but he’s as often soft-spoken and soothing and he can’t help inviting what he thinks he wants least right now, friendship. Like his patients back home, everyone he meets feels comfortable opening up to him and Sheen has Tom respond with instinctive compassion, grace, and courtesy that his conscious and convincing attempts at irascibility can’t hide.
As Sarah, Deborah Kara Unger looks scarred, inside and out. She’s clearly someone who’s been beaten up by life. What she’s trying or rather pretending to try to hide is that she’s still getting beat up, from within. Every one of the cigarettes she’s supposed to be trying to give up goes into her mouth with a poke as if what she really wants to do is smack herself in the mouth. She latches onto Tom for the reason everyone is drawn to him, she senses he’s someone who can help her, but she can only approach him with the same tough as nails, wisecracking cynic act she’s probably used all her life to attract men. Guys are supposed to see through it and reach out to the vulnerable Sarah hiding behind the act. Unger lets us see that Sarah knows this won’t work with Tom, knows that she shouldn’t even be trying it with him, and is mad at herself at the same time she finds it funny. She has enough of a sense of humor left to know the only one she’s kidding is herself.
Jack’s writer’s block prevents him from putting words down on paper, but it doesn’t mean he can’t find the words. He has them to spare. They just spill out of his mouth instead of his pen. And he can’t shut up. Some people have the gift of gab. Jack is cursed with it. James Nesbitt makes him still a charmer and smart enough and decent enough to be appalled at himself.
But it’s Yorick van Wageningen’s Yost who steals scenes and steals our hearts. With Yost, Jack notes, kindness is an instinct. He is the cheerful and happy presence that keeps the company together, and he’s the only one of the group who is enjoying the trip for the trip’s sake. Even when he gets to Pamplona which he’s been looking forward to in order to join in on the running of the bulls and finds the bulls aren’t running, he’s able to content himself with buying and wearing the regulation beret and making plans to return when the bulls will be let loose. But cheerful and cheering as he is, he’s also the saddest of Tom’s three strays.
While Tom is looking for solace and Sarah needs forgiveness and Jack wants inspiration, Yost is, unconsciously, seeking wisdom and that always comes at a cost.
Yost has to learn to be disappointed with himself. He has to as the necessary first step to taking himself seriously. We can infer that back home he’s seen as something of a clown and the reason for that is that he sees himself as a clown.
The Way is a sweet, sad, funny, joyful movie that asks its audience to accept that intelligent, humane, educated, thoroughly modernized and basically liberal people can, although lapsed, still be Catholic enough to find solace in their faith or to miss it if they’ve lost it enough to walk a thousand miles to chase it down and get some of the feeling and comfort it used to give them back, if only for a few moments.
Tho’ I’m no Catholic, at least not anymore, I couldn’t help seeing The Way as a very Catholic movie, but not the bishops’ version of Catholic. The trappings are thankfully kept to a minimum. Rosaries appear as the source of an affectionate joke and there’s only one priest with any lines in the movie and he’s a fellow pilgrim which means that he’s as lost and searching as everybody else. And at one point, Jack, the Irishman, refuses to go into a village church even as a tourist, because, as he says flat out, where he comes from, churches are “temples of tears,” a very pointed and damning reference to the horrific reports coming out of Ireland of generations of systemic child abuse by the Irish clergy, which of course brings to mind what has happened here under the eyes and with the help of the same bishops who are insisting that they speak for the us and get to tell us what we want them to say on our behalf.
Scandal and the moral cowardice and bankruptcy of the bishops aside, The Way is a quiet, calm, and unself-conscious answer to Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s hierarchical and authoritarian view of the way to God. Gary Wills has written about the divide between the church of the People of God and the institutional Church. It’s a divide I’ve always seen as being between the church of St Francis and the Church of the Pope. In the latter, the priests stand between you and Christ. In the former, you go out into the world like Christ in order to join him in the company of other sinners. The one approach is institutional. The other way is purely personal.
When Tom and his companions arrive at a spot overlooking the city of Santiago, at what is essentially the end of the road, they stand beside the much larger than life-sized statues of a pair of pilgrims in attitudes of gratitude and celebration at having finished their journey. Next to the statues, they appear tiny but that reduction seems right.
It would be understandable to hear pilgrims speak of their experience as enlarging and describe their souls expanding as they reached their destination.
But I think that if it was me standing there I’d feel my smallness and insignificance and I’d want to feel that because that feeling would be the necessary prelude to appreciating the immensity and wonderful mysteriousness of the whole of His creation.
Our place in it is small but how grand it is to know we have a place.
The blonde’s blub: It breaks your heart.
Related exegesis: M.A. Peel compares The Way to Tree of Life.
The Way, written and directed by Emilio Estevez, starring Martin Sheen, Yorick van Wageningen, James Nesbitt, Deborah Kara Unger, Matt Clark, and Emilio Estevez. Now available on DVD and to watch instantly at Amazon.