Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Way (2011)

Yorick van Wageningen, Deborah Kara Unger, James Nesbitt and Martin Sheen in The Way.
There are few cinematic pleasures compared to that of seeing a superb actor in top form, and for this all one has to do is watch Martin Sheen in The Way, a film about pilgrims journeying on foot to the shrine of Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain. While none of the pilgrims is a practicing Catholic, they are nonetheless touched by the signs and practices of the ancient Faith upon which the pilgrimage is based. Directed by Sheen's son, Emilio Estevez, it is a modern Canterbury Tales, dealing with how the pilgrims bond while hiking el camino, the road to Compostela. While elements of The Way reminded me of The Breakfast Club, which Estevez starred in as a young actor and which also shows people from disparate backgrounds becoming friends. However, the film Estevez has crafted has more depth, richness and beauty than any of the films he has acted in.

According to The New York Times:
Mr. Estevez is both writer and director of this film, and also turns up in a small role, but he gives the spotlight to his father, who makes quite a lot out of a low-key story that could easily have degenerated into mush. Mr. Sheen plays an ophthalmologist named Tom, whose only son, Daniel (Mr. Estevez), dies in severe weather in the Pyrenees while trying to walk the Way of St. James (also known as the Camino de Santiago), a pilgrimage of hundreds of miles that ends in northwest Spain at a cathedral where the Apostle James is said to be buried.

Tom goes to retrieve his son’s body and ends up walking the pilgrimage himself, scattering Daniel’s ashes along the way. Mr. Sheen gives a lovely performance as the no-nonsense doctor, and he gets wonderful support from actors playing fellow travelers who befriend Tom: Yorick van Wageningen as a verbose Dutchman, Deborah Kara Unger as an acid-tongued woman trying to quit smoking, and James Nesbitt as an Irishman with writer’s block.

This is not an “inspirational film” in the usual, syrupy sense; none of these people are overtly finding God on this trek. The beauty of the movie, in fact, is that Mr. Estevez does not make explicit what any of them find, beyond friendship. He lets these four fine actors convey that true personal transformations are not announced with fanfare, but happen internally. (Read more.)
Here are some reflections on the film from Steve Greydanus:
One way to look at Tom’s pilgrimage is to say that he is looking for his son on the journey that Daniel was planning to take. The Way suggests, with effective simplicity, that Tom does find Daniel, in a sense. Does he ever feel a sense of disappointment, of not finding Daniel? Tom is not the sort to share his feelings, and the movie respectfully allows him to keep his distance.

Ultimately, The Way is a valentine to the Camino — and that’s enough. I appreciate the film’s exploration of the protocols and the rituals of the Camino: the credencial or pilgrim’s passport that must be stamped at various checkpoints along the way to verify the pilgrimage route at the end of the journey; the scallop shell that some pilgrims carry, with various symbolic meanings attached to it; the final approach to the statue of St. James on one’s knees; and so forth. I have no doubt that many viewers will resolve to walk the Camino at some point in their lives after watching the film. Count me among them.

If there is a glimpse of transcendence in The Way, it is at the climax, in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. While the film stops well short of a profession of faith, it does offer an affirmation of sorts of the human value of some kind of faith or religious heritage, and in particular of Catholic cultural accoutrements, of traditions like pilgrimages and the Sign of the Cross, and of beautiful cathedrals and such, particularly in times of crisis. This is a salutary thought, as far as it goes, and a welcome one in our cultural moment.
The catch-phrase “spiritual but not religious” is among the most glib and insipid pieties of our times. The Way, with its centuries of tradition, its ritual gestures and formalities, its institutions and symbols, its physically demanding regimen, and its cultural, Christian and Catholic particularity, is a gratifying reminder of how religion grounds and enriches us in ways that “spirituality” can’t. “Spirituality” has no traditions or rituals, makes no demands, gives us nothing to do in times of crisis. Spirituality itself points beyond spirituality to religion—a point The Way makes with unforced persuasiveness. (Read more.)
One of the most enjoyable aspects of The Way was how it reminded me of the summer I spent at the shrine of Lourdes, on the French side of the Pyrenees. The variety of curious characters encountered by Tom on his pilgrimage, from the crazy Irishman and the eccentric innkeepers to the elderly priest, not to mention the gypsies, all brought to mind people I met during my own sojourn in the same part of the world. I love the scenes of sitting around a table engaged in a spirited debate, which happened to me a great deal in that culture where the wine and the conversation are as much a part of a good meal as the food. Am I looking forward to someday returning to walk el camino? Yes, I am. Share

1 comment:

julygirl said...

I saw it not so much as the father trying to "find" his son, but rather the father trying to understand what his son was about and why...trying to connect with his son's spirit and where his son was in his life's journey when the son decided to undertake such a pilgrimage. This is the kind of film one doesn't want to end because it says so much yet seems to have more to say.