(2011) Drama (ARC Entertainment) Martin Sheen, Yorick von Wageningen, Deborah Kara Unger, James Nesbitt, Emilio Estevez, Tcheky Karyo, Spencer Garrett, Angelina Molina, Carlos Leal, Antonio Gil, Simon Andreu, David Alexanian, Eusebio Lazaro. Directed by Emilio Estevez
It is a popular aphorism to make life a journey along a road that makes many twists and turns, making it often impossible to see what lies on the horizon. It’s not the destination that matters so much as the journey itself and sometimes, just getting out the door and out on the road.
Tom (Sheen) is a successful ophthalmologist living in Ventura, just north of Los Angeles on the Pacific coast. He is a widower whose relationship with his only son Daniel (Estevez) is rocky; Tom has trouble understanding his son who seems so very different than himself. He drives his son to the airport; Daniel has quit his doctoral thesis in cultural anthropology because he has gotten frustrated with learning about things and has decided to take some time to experience them directly. He goes to Europe, which his father makes clear he doesn’t approve of.
Shortly thereafter Tom gets a call that his son has died in Europe while hiking in the Pyrenees. Devastated, Tom goes to France to retrieve the body of his son. A sympathetic gendarme (Karyo) accompanies Tom to the morgue to identify his son’s body and gives him Daniel’s possessions. As Tom goes through them he realizes he really didn’t know his son at all.
It turns out that Daniel’s intention had been to walk the Camino de Santiago – the Way of Saint James. It is a pilgrimage that has been going on for more than a thousand years with pilgrims walking from the French Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain. Tom, raised Catholic but not actively practicing, decides to complete the pilgrimage with his son’s ashes, stopping to leave a little bit of his son’s remains at various places on the route.
Along the way he meets a variety of people – a jovial Dutchman named Joost (Von Wageningen) who is walking the route to lose weight but can’t stop eating and drinking the delicacies of Spain; Sarah (Unger), a Canadian with a chip on her shoulder who is out on the Camino to quit smoking (which she intends to do when she reaches the terminus at the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela) and Jack (Nesbitt), a garrulous travel writer from Ireland suffering from writer’s block and an excess of bonhomie.
Tom doesn’t really want the company; he’s a private individual who wants to grieve on his own terms. However he can’t help but open up to his travel companions and along the way, not only is there magnificent scenery but he meets a variety of people – from a kindly American priest making his pilgrimage to a group of generous Basques in Roncesvalles to a Gypsy father in Burgos. And the question becomes – is he taking this trip to honor his son, or for reasons he can’t begin to imagine?
This is a movie I expected to like but not as much as I did. Being a lapsed Catholic myself, I’m familiar with the Camino de Santiago and its importance particularly to Spanish Catholics. The remains of the Apostle St. James are supposedly beneath the Cathedral and all along the Way are stops of significance both historical and religious. There is something thrilling about seeing what pilgrims from centuries ago also saw. We are taken along on this journey and it is a road trip of a lifetime.
Sheen, brilliant for so many years on “The West Wing,” continues to show why he is one of America’s most underrated actors and has been for a very long time. There is an honesty, an authenticity to his performance. It’s very subtle and understated and not at all the kind of performance that attracts Oscar’s notice, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an amazing piece of acting.
There are some very wrenching moments. I can’t imagine what it’s like to lose a child – even if he is an adult – and I hope I never have to. Given what the family was going through as this was being filmed (yes, it was when Charlie Sheen was the center of media attention), it makes me wonder how Sheen and Estevez could muster up the concentration to do their jobs as well as they do here.
This had a powerful effect on me, not just for the obvious reasons of confronting grief or my Catholic upbringing but also because it is about some of our most fundamental values and how they serve us – or don’t – in times of crisis. This isn’t preachy in the least and those thinking that this is all about converting you to the Catholic way, think again – the Catholics haven’t particularly embraced this movie, at least not officially. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a spiritual element to it, particularly on a humanist level. This isn’t a movie about religious denominations, but what drives us as human beings and what is important in life.
This isn’t revelatory in the sense that you’re going to learn anything new about life, but it does give you the opportunity for personal insight. You may not necessarily be motivated to convert to Catholicism but you might very well be motivated to start walking yourself. The Way is the biggest surprise so far in 2011 and may well wind up being the best movie this year.
REASONS TO GO: A film that is both uplifting and deals honestly with grief and reaching out. Gorgeous cinematography.
REASONS TO STAY: May be too slow-paced for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some thematic elements that might be a little much for the younger or more impressionable set, as well as a few bad words sprinkled here and there.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The inspiration for the film came from a pilgrimage Sheen made with his grandson Taylor Estevez several years ago. Estevez met someone and fell in love on the pilgrimage and elected to remain in Spain.
HOME OR THEATER: At this point it will be difficult to find in a theater but if it’s playing near you, by all means make an effort to see it.
FINAL RATING: 10/10
TOMORROW: The Secret in Their Eyes