Review by © Jane Freebury
An eight hundred-kilometre hike with backpack across the top of Spain in the company of a fat Dutchman, a garrulous Irishman, a chain-smoking Canadian and a gruff American ophthalmologist doesn’t sound very promising, but this rambling road movie on foot is both a surprise and a pleasure. Really.
It may not help either that the long distance walk has been a Christian pilgrim route for centuries, with the devoted making their way on foot, on horseback—and on their knees?—to the shrine in Galicia where it’s said the remains of a saint are buried. Another free kick for likely detractors? And yet, though the search for meaning and purpose is a subtext, this film is not about religion. For the majority of participants, the quest is undertaken for personal reasons with 21st century goals in mind, like losing weight and quitting smoking. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales wasn’t a religious story either.
Joost (Yorick van Wageningen) wants to shed some kilos, Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger) wants to give up cigarettes, and Jack (James Nesbitt) wants to rid himself of writer’s block. Only Tom (Martin Sheen) is apparently putting himself through it for a higher purpose. He has just lost his only son Daniel (Emilio Estevez) who, caught alone in treacherous weather in the Pyrenees, perished early on ‘el Camino de Santiago’.
The Way is in itself a personal gesture from Estevez who writes, directs and produces. He is Sheen’s eldest son and uses his family’s true name, not the stage name. The film is dedicated to his grandfather, Francisco Estevez, who emigrated from Galicia, Spain.
A conversation between Tom and Daniel in flashback quickly establishes the reasons for their estrangement, many of them familiar. In an effort to get closer to the son he didn’t know and didn’t take the trouble to understand, Tom decides to do ‘el camino de Santiago’ himself and distribute his son’s ashes along the way. From the moment he sets out, the mood begins to lift, helped by the musical score and some gentle ironic humour.
Martin Sheen, who managed to survive Apocalypse Now, makes a fine grumpy old man. Although he falls in with the three other walkers along the way, he doggedly takes the lead and behaves like a regular pain in the ass. This will of course change along the way on this picaresque journey to self discovery.
Tom, Jack, Joost, and Sarah and the incidental characters they encounter are all painted with broad strokes. If they sometimes stray a bit too close to caricature, it seems beside the point to condemn it when the experience is so heart-felt, good natured and engaging.
In a capsule: A surprisingly engaging, big-hearted tale about an American doctor who undertakes the ‘el camino de Santiago’ pilgrimage for his only son, who perished in an accident while attempting it himself. This road movie on foot with a cast of broadly drawn characters works a treat.