In movie terms, not much happens in Emilio Estevez's The Way, an account of one man's journey along "El Camino de Santiago" (The Way of St. James). No explosions, no romance, no grand melodrama: just a lot of pretty scenery and mostly casual chit-chat. It's instead a journey of the soul, of understanding, that is likewise a companionable and affecting undertaking for the viewer.
The Camino is an 800-kilometer walk, historically undertaken by pilgrims, from St. Jean Pied de Port, France, to a cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Today, such pilgrims may include individuals on religious quests, or simply adventurous travelers who enjoy a good 500-mile walk through the Spanish countryside.
For American ophthalmologist Tom (Martin Sheen), hiking the Camino is an impulse, born of grief. His son Daniel (Sheen's son Estevez), a free-spirit whose globe-hopping annoys his by-the-book father, has died in an accident near the walk's start. Tom comes to St. Jean Pied de Port to collect the body. After pondering his disconnect with his only child, he decides to complete the walk "with" Daniel, using his gear and scattering his cremated remains as he goes.
Naturally, Tom meets an assortment of folks along the popular walk, including a Catholic priest who wears a yarmulke, a gypsy family and various argumentative young Europeans, who nonetheless still wish the American "Buen Camino." He also forms a road family of other solo travelers: the teddy-bearish Dutchman Joost (Yorick van Wageningen); Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger), a sardonic Canadian; and Jack (James Nesbitt), a garrulous Irishman who's writing a travel guide about the Camino.
Jack's occupation is one of several cheats that let Estevez, who wrote the screenplay, slip into travelogue mode. Writer Jack also gets to complain about what a tiresome metaphor "the road as personal journey" is, while, of course, succumbing to it. It's a wink to the audience, which has likely trundled along on many such cinematic journeys, while still acknowledging the truth of the trope.
The Way is a low-key but entertaining dramedy that delivers both chuckles and poignant moments, while rolling out revelation after revelation: Emilio "Men at Work" Estevez directed a decent film. Martin Sheen, the quiet, serious actor, should be in more movies. You can make a film with a spiritual and inspirational subtext that doesn't feel preachy or cloying. And, I should take better vacations.
Seriously. I love to walk, especially on some pre-set challenge, and I'd have booked a trip tomorrow on the Camino, if they'd let me leave my cubicle. Sadly, this proves that I still have one of the film's lessons to embrace: Live the life you want to live, not the one you feel obligated to.
Directed by Emilio Estevez
Starring Martin Sheen, Deborah Kara Unger, Yorick van Wageningen, James Nesbitt
AMC Loews and Pittsburgh Mills Cinemark