Regular readers may remember the recent review of The Alchemist here, which also touched upon the unique biography of author Paulo Coelho. The book Coelho wrote before The Alchemist was The Pilgrimage, a story about his walking the Camino de Santiago which led him to follow his dream of becoming a writer. As often happens, between Amazon, Google, Wikipedia, and Netflix, one thing leads to another and soon we are immersing ourselves in these newly discovered waters. Last night we watched The Way, a 2010 movie about the Camino de Santiago by Emilio Estevez starring his father, Martin Sheen.
Sheen stars as Thomas Avery, a Ventura, California ophthalmologist who is on the golf course with his well-heeled peers when he receives a phone call from France, informing him of the death of his son, Daniel (played by Estevez, who also wrote, produced, and directed the film).
The 39-year-old son parted ways with his father when he quit grad school to see the world. Now Daniel has been killed in some sort of severe weather event in the Pyrenees on his first day walking the Camino. Devastated by this sudden loss of his only child, Tom travels to St. Pied de Port, France to collect his son’s remains, and ultimately decides to walk the Camino in Daniel’s stead — with Daniel’s gear, and carrying Daniel’s ashes.
This 1,200 year old pilgrimage, a walk of 769 kilometers (478 miles) across the north of Spain, typically takes at least four weeks, and Thomas is no kid. (Sheen was 69 during filming in September 2009, and Estevez was 47.)
A little bit like Dorothy on the Yellow Brick Road, Tom gradually attracts three companions, each with specific shortcomings they’re aiming to overcome by making the pilgrimage. Joost from Amsterdam (Yorick van Wageningen) needs to lose weight, Canadian Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger) has left an abusive husband and vows to quit smoking, and Jack (James Nesbitt) is a talkative Irishman with writer’s block whose only published work to date is travel stuff.
The 121-minute movie charts Tom’s journey. We take in the pastoral peace of the Spanish countryside, marvel at the old towns and their characters along the route, observe Tom’s interaction with his fellow humans, and watch him cope with the various stresses he encounters on the trail.
If there’s something transformative about walking, the effect must be profoundly enhanced by walking all day, every day for weeks, and The Way captures that feeling very successfully. It also sprinkles in some Catholicism — no overt preachy message, just a winking reminder that the Church abides, in case any lapsed Catholics were wondering.
The acting is okay, but the performances are not outstanding. The scenery is very nice, and the music is predictable. The salutation “buen camino” may be heard too often, but I imagine that the Camino must be the number one topic of conversation on the Camino. If so, then this film is true to life. There are no car chases or explosions, but the gigantic swinging incense censer at Santiago de Compostela Cathedral is kind of breathtaking.
The best thing about The Way is its cumulative effect. The journey really is its own reward, and while “the road” as a metaphor is openly mocked by Jack the writer, such clichés do have a basis.
This film rings those old bells. It creates an atmosphere conducive to thinking about your own path — and also about going for an actual walk, an entrancing dream on a freezing night in February.
I rate it three out of four stars.