Emilio Estevez’ The Way joins the ranks of other classic “journey” films (think Wizard of Oz). Tom Avery (Martin Sheen) is an ophthalmologist, making a career in helping people see. He and his son Daniel (Estevez) see the world differently. Life has changed after Tom’s wife dies. The relationship, we can gather, between Tom and Daniel has become a difficult one. Daniel decides to go to Europe to walk El Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James), a walker’s trek that stretches across France into Spain. On his first day on the journey Daniel dies in bad weather. Tom, already lamenting that he hasn’t heard from his son, gets a call from the French police explaining the situation. And with that, Tom begins his own pilgrimage.
Tom’s intention in traveling to France is to bring his dead son back home. As he methodologically, and somewhat ritually, takes Daniel’s belongings out of his backpack, Tom is inspired. He requests that Daniel be cremated. By morning, he is packed and ready to embark on the El Camino himself. The police captain who phoned him about his son asks him why he is going on this pilgrimage, telling him, “You walk it only for yourself.”
As Tom hikes along the El Camino, he encounters other pilgrims, three of which join him (again think Wizard of Oz). There is the Dutchman Joost, a big guy who is making the pilgrimage to lose weight before his brother’s wedding. Along the journey he reveals that his wife won’t have sex with him because he’s too fat, which results in him thinking negatively about himself. He lacks the courage to see himself for who he is. The Canadian, Sarah, is planning to quit smoking when she reaches Santiago. After a tense moment between she and Tom, she opens up and shares with him that she was in an abusive relationship. She had forgotten what it means to love. And finally, squawking in a hay field is Jack from Ireland, a traveling writer who has lost his ability to form sentences. Faced with massive writer’s block, he hopes the El Camino will bring him the inspiration he lacked.
The symbols and metaphors of the spiritual journey are numerous. Jack from Ireland, who first appears like a mad poet, rants about the El Camino as a metaphor—“It’s a metaphor bonanza!” The symbol used for the pilgrims on this particular pilgrimage is a sea shell. Its image can be found on sign posts along the journey, on the pilgrim’s “passport,” and various backpacks. As a symbol of St. James, it represents the pilgrimage and the pilgrim. In the broader Christian faith, the shell is a symbol of baptism. Though baptisms may look different among the various expressions of the Christian faith, it is agreed that baptism represents new life.
That’s what the pilgrimage is about. The El Camino is about reaching new life, new beginnings, a new start. It’s about facing challenges while navigating an ever changing and chaotic world. For Tom it means facing the reality of what he did not do when it came to his relationship with his son (or how he did not live life). The pilgrimage becomes about reconnecting with his son, Daniel. Along the journey, he places small scoops of Daniel’s ashes at crosses, fence posts, and so forth. Tom is making this pilgrimage with Daniel, ultimately discovering what it means to live life. As the film ends, we know that Tom has been transformed. In the final scene of the film, he is walking through the streets of India. New life has begun. He now sees the world differently, and as such, he is changed.
Overall, the film is well made and engaging. It has that art-house feel to it. Some of the best scenes are the dialogue-free scenes. In these, Martin Sheen elegantly portrays the prodigal father, arrogant at times, emphatic at times, and always cautious about being seen grieving. It raises questions about what it means to be a true pilgrim in the 21st century, the father-son dynamic, and the relationship between suffering and journey, among others. The DVD features a handful of special features that are, at best, mediocre. If you’re looking for a film to use with your church/religious group, add The Way to your list. It will, no doubt, aid in fruitful conversations about life, faith, and doubt.