When pilgrims progress in life
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, Oct 07, 2011
The title of "The Way" refers to the Camino de Santiago de Campostela, the 1,000-year old route from France to northern Spain that thousands of peregrinos, or pilgrims, walk each year, ending at the site where the remains of Saint James are reportedly buried.
But if you think watching "The Way" will be akin to eating your theological spinach - Sunday School on the silver screen - think again. Writer-director Emilio Estevez instead treats viewers to a sensuous, expansive hymn to travel and transformation in a movie that honors earthly pleasures as readily as it contemplates higher things.
Anchored by a career-redefining performance by Estevez's father, Martin Sheen, "The Way" behaves much like the many hostels and tiny inns that give Camino travelers food and shelter on the road toward Spain: It's modest, warm and welcoming, never insisting on a particular pace or philosophical bent, but always staying open.
Sheen plays Tom Avery, a California ophthalmologist whose son Daniel (Estevez) is killed in a freak storm just as he is beginning the Camino. Traveling to France to gather Daniel's remains, Tom makes the impulsive decision to finish the pilgrimage on his son's behalf, putting on the younger man's backpack and setting off for Basque country.
The scene when Tom embarks on the route is just the first of many sight gags that punctuate "The Way," letting viewers know that they're not in for any maudlin grieving-father melodrama or tight-lipped tutorial. When Tom - played with flawless deadpan misanthropy by the ageless Sheen - makes three unlikely friends along the road, the jokes and banter continue apace, with a portly, pot-smoking Dutchman named Joost (Yorick van Wageningen) providing most of the laughs.
Joost, it turns out, is walking the Camino not for religious reasons but to lose weight for his brother's wedding; Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger), an icy blonde from Canada who speaks in tough, film noir cadences, has vowed to quit smoking when she reaches the Cathedral of St. James. Jack (James Nesbitt), whom the three meet late in their journey, is a would-be author suffering from writer's block. As a stand-in for Jack Hitt, whose book "Off the Road: A Modern-Day Walk Down the Pilgrim's Route in Spain" inspired "The Way," Jack occasionally comes off like the Chief Explainer, providing paragraphs of exposition on the Camino's origins and its allegorical potential (the road, he giddily tells his fellow travelers, is a veritable "metaphor bonanza").
But if Jack's soliloquies feel a tad tacked-on at times, the rest of "The Way" unfolds with relaxed, unforced ease, including Tom's occasional glimpses of his late son accompanying him like a benevolent angel.
Estevez seamlessly knits those magical sequences in with the otherwise rigorously realist aesthetic of "The Way," which was filmed on the Camino and features real-life peregrinos as background players.
With such a strong grounding in setting and spirit, "The Way" ends up being one of those movies that works not just as a story but as a vivid, immersive experience, bringing viewers into the Camino's most legendary refugios (the innkeeper named Ramon is based on a real-life man), as well as the route's most breathtaking vistas.
Funny, moving, hip and transcendent all at the same time, "The Way" is both deeply thoughtful and enormous fun to watch. Its rewards are as rich for the secular as for the more spiritually inclined. Whether you come to play or pray, Estevez has made a movie of beauty, humor and disarmingly humble devotion.
In English and Spanish with English subtitles. Contains some thematic elements, drug use and smoking.