Martin Sheen in The Way
Emilio Estevez adapted Jack Hitt’s 1994 travelogue, Off the Road: A Modern Day Walk Down the Pilgrim’s Route into Spain, trekking one of the world’s most traveled sacred roads, El Camino de Santiago, The Way of Saint James. El Camino spans hundreds of kilometers from Saint-Jean Pied de Port in France to Spain’s holy coastal city of Santiago de Compostela, where Saint James was reportedly buried. All who travel this route are considered pilgrims; they go in search of a religious experience, a fresh start, or answers to a personal puzzle. And the pilgrim never finishes the journey the way he started.
In bringing this story to the screen as The Way, writer-director Emilio Estevez adds the twist of a strained father-son relationship. He casts his own dad, Martin Sheen, as Tom, an American doctor whose son Daniel dies in a storm while trekking El Camino. Tom flies to France to bring Daniel’s body home. But once there, Tom makes the radical decision to cremate—Tom will make Daniel’s pilgrimage himself, scattering Daniel’s ashes along the long and holy road. This seems out of character for the methodical Tom, but grief is a game-changer. And now, El Camino will change his life again.
What enriches this emotional story are the quirky travelers sharing the road: Joost (Yorick van Wageningen), a large extrovert Dutchman who wants to lose weight, Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger), a Canadian trying to quit smoking, and Jack (James Nesbitt), an Irish travel writer with writer’s block. But Tom is drowning in grief and anger. And being proud and independent, he’s not interested in fraternizing with other travelers or revealing the purpose of his journey. Tom wants to bear his burden in private. But when you’re walking El Camino, alone is not always an option.
The beauty of The Way lies not only in the fabulous scenery but in the journey itself, a metaphor for the journey of life. Tom did not get along with his son. And on El Camino, Tom isolates himself from other travelers, unwilling to open up, to listen to their stories and share the experience. The Way is a message about relationships—with family, friends, or fellow travelers who are passing through. The quality of the journey depends on the extent to which we accept others into our lives. The people beside us may not be our first-choice companions. But if we surrender, if we open our hearts and share, we can make the journey better. B+