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Following the pilgrim’s way

THE WAY: Starring Martin Sheen, Emilio Estevez, Yorick van Wageningen, Deborah Kara Unger, James Nesbitt. Written and directed by Emilio Estevez. 123 minutes. Rated PG (Mild themes, drug use and coarse language)
Reviewed by Fr Richard Leonard SJ

EVER since Tom’s (Martin Sheen) wife died, his relationship with his only child Daniel (Emilio Estevez) has been fraught. In dealing with his grief, Daniel takes flight, from his doctoral studies, from his father and from the USA.

Under the guise of being a cultural anthropologist on field studies, David tries running away from himself and his pain.

Daniel finds his way to the Pyrenees where he begins the medieval pilgrimage, now called The Camino (The Way). Ill prepared, he dies from exposure in the early days of his pilgrimage.

Tom leaves his practice as an ophthalmologist in California and goes to claim his son’s body at St Jean Pied de Port, France.

On arrival he discovers what Daniel was doing, and Tom decides to complete the pilgrimage as a way establishing a connection with his dead son. “Our children are the very best and the very worst of us.”

Armed with his son’s backpack and guidebook, Tom navigates the 800km historical pilgrimage from the French Pyrenees, to Santiago de Compostela in the north-west of Spain, but soon discovers that he will not be alone on this journey.

While walking The Camino, Tom meets other pilgrims from around the world: an obese Dutchman who has self-esteem issues and a marijuana problem; an abused feminist from Canada who knows what it is to lose a child; an Irish writer who is angry with the Church, likes drinking and observes other people’s experience rather than having his own.

These eccentric characters all make the journey together; along the way dealing with the anger, hurt and pain that saw them unconsciously begin it in the first place.

This quartet are not the only eccentrics in this film. There is the Basque hostel owner who wants to be a bullfighter, an American priest who is recovering from a brain tumour, and the leader of the gypsies who is the portrait of a committed father and an honourable man.

The Way is a wonderful and moving achievement. That said, there a few narrative problems, it is a fraction too long and there is an absence of almost anyone on the Camino who is generally happy.

Filmed almost entirely in Spain and France along the actual Camino de Santiago, it is a compelling exploration of many things: the grief of a parent for a child; the power of a journey to unmask real issues about self-knowledge; and the multiple layers of personal and sacred revelation to which we can aspire.

It is not by accident that the symbol of The Camino is a shell, which, among other things, needs to be prized open, often with difficulty, to bring forth potential treasure.

It is very rare for me to say that I think every Catholic secondary school student should see a film, but The Way is it. And I know that almost every person of faith will find here a genuinely faith-filled experience.

One of the great ironies in regard to this film is that one of the major genres of the cinema is the “road film”, where the characters go on a journey somewhere to discover something essential or important.

Maybe the Camino de Santiago di Compostela is, after Jerusalem, Mecca and the Ganges, the oldest continuing pilgrimage in the world.

It certainly is the first to actually have a guide book written about how to accomplish it. But it still holds a strong attraction to the young and the old, believer and non-believer alike.

The insightful tag line of the film comes from Daniel’s challenge to his father as he takes flight from home, “You don’t choose a life, Dad. You live one.”

And an even more telling line comes later, “The Camino is all about confronting death.” Every journey to self and religious revelation involves death in all its varieties.

TS Eliot’s famous poem The Journey of the Magi, those original Christian pilgrims, understood this well:
“… were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.”

Wherever your journey takes you, make sure you find your way to The Way.

Fr Richard Leonard SJ is the director of the Australian Catholic Film Office.


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