Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Just the Facts – A Review of ‘The Way’

From the upcoming edition of The Catholic Key:

Just the Facts

The Way
DIR Emilio Estevez
SCR Emilio Estevez
Starring Emilio Estevez, Martin Sheen, Deborah Kara Unger, James Nesbitt, Yorick van Wageningen

Reviewed by Santiago Ramos

mediapicsept30 EL CAMINO DE Santiago, or the “Way of St. James,” is a pilgrimage route in Spain which stretches for around 500 miles, if you start from the most popular starting point in the French Pyrenees. The path leads right up to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, in the Spanish region of Galicia, where the remains of St. James the Apostle rest and are venerated. Most pilgrims take a month or more to make the journey. For hundreds of years, pilgrims from all over the world have traveled the Camino, in a quest to pray before some bones which also had to travel—to Spain, from the Holy Land, where James had died.

Martin Sheen (whose real name is Ramon Estevez), had heard about the Camino from his elder relatives in the Old Country. For years he entertained the romantic idea of going on it himself, but he was not able to do so until he already had grandchildren. During a West Wing filming hiatus, he flew to Spain with his grandson Taylor (son of Emilio Estevez), and traveled the Way—by car. (“Like a good American,” as he said during a Q and A session I attended in Boston.) During the trip, his grandson fell in love with a Spanish girl, and so the Way and the pilgrimage became even richer with meaning for them.

The best way to celebrate this happy significance, this joyous pilgrimage, would be to make a film. Sheen wanted to make a humble documentary, but his son Emilio (who already has directing credits for Bobby under his belt) wanted to tell a story. And he wrote a script with his father in mind for the starring role.

THE RESULT OF their efforts is The Way. Martin Sheen plays Tom Avery, a wealthy ophthalmologist whose estranged son, Daniel (played by Emilio) dies on the first leg of the Camino. Traveling to Europe to retrieve his son’s body, he decides to go on pilgrimage himself, as a way to honor his son. While in the Pyrenees he befriends a policeman, a veteran of the Way who warns Tom that one only ever does the Camino for one’s self.

Along the way, Tom meets three other characters who make it clear that they are on the path for themselves. Yoost (Yorick van Wageningen) is an archetypical decadent Dutchman, smoking marijuana and gorging on food and wine. He is on the path for a very worldly reason: he needs to lose weight. Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger), a Canadian woman in her thirties, is coy: she chain smokes and says that she will leave her last pack of cigarettes on the foot of the statue of Santiago, and never smoke again. But her real reason for traveling will become clear later on. Finally, Jack (James Nesbitt), aggressively annoying when you first meet him, endears himself to the audience once we figure it that he is a broken hearted writer who is trying to find something real to write about.

This collection of motivations might, at first, appear to have nothing to do with the bones of St. James. They are not explicitly religious. One month is a long time to go on pilgrimage. Without having the reasons for the pilgrimage clear in one’s mind, that month might feel like a year. If those reasons aren’t significant, that year might feel like a lifetime. Yet it is the case that people go on the Camino for many reasons, lofty and banal, as people who have been there will tell you. In the film, a gypsy tells Tom that the Camino “has nothing to do with religion.” Tom also runs into a priest suffering from brain cancer, who hands him a rosary. “I am a lapsed Catholic,” Tom tells the priest. But a few stops later along the Way, he finds the priest and thanks him for the rosary, saying that it has come in handy. Later on, Tom encounters real-life flagellants—bleeding, faces hidden, slowly walking the same path that he is on. The path is crowded with spirits.

This film places us before the brute fact of the pilgrimage. It shows that 1.) people go on it for many different reasons and from all parts of the world; 2.) that what they all have in common, in the most essential sense possible, is the need for something that they cannot obtain without help; and 3.) that they go to pilgrimage to this site, and not another. They go to Santiago, not to Madrid, or Disney, or the beach. That they travel the same road that has been traveled and this is the most interesting fact of all.

WHY THIS PILGRIMAGE and not that one? Or, why a pilgrimage at all? In a beautiful book titled The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, the writer Paul Elie defines a pilgrimage in this way: “A pilgrimage is a journey undertaken in the light of a story. A great event has happened; the pilgrim hears the reports and goes in search of the evidence, aspiring to be an eyewitness. The pilgrim seeks not only to confirm the experience of others firsthand but to be changed by the experience.” All of the pilgrims in The Way have heard reports from a specific place, and they seek confirmation.

This film is the story of their experience. It doesn’t force coherence upon it, and it doesn’t explain it completely. But this film is also, in its own way, the report of a great event. It makes you want to go on the Camino itself, looking for confirmation and experience. The film is interesting in itself because it makes you interested in life itself. What more can you ask from a movie?

The Way opens in theatres October 7. Santiago Ramos is pursuing graduate studies in philosophy at Boston College.