I have taught you the way of wisdom;
I have led you in the paths of uprightness.
When you walk, your step will not be hampered;
and if you run, you will not stumble.
Keep hold of instruction; do not let go;
guard her, for she is your life.
By far the best film currently showing, this combination of the themes of father-son and on-the-road, features real life father Martin Sheen directed by his son Emilio Estevez. The latter plays the son in flashback scenes, and even wrote the script inspired by experiences that he and his father had when several years ago they walked the pilgrimage of Camino de Santiago, in English known as “The Way of St. James” or, simply, “The Way.” Sheen plays Dr. Tom Avery, an ophthalmologist who has settled into the routine of life, estranged years earlier from his free-spirited son Daniel. He receives word of Daniel’s death, the young man having started out on a pilgrimage which began in the French Pyrenees and was to continue for some 500 miles through northern Spain to the great cathedral in Santiago.
When he goes to retrieve the body, Tom learns that a freak change in the weather had led to his son’s death just a short time after he had begun the walk. Impulsively he decides to finish Daniel’s pilgrimage using the gear left behind. Carting Daniel’s ashes in an urn stowed into the backpack, Tom meets many people on the journey, including three who become his close companions, none of whom started with any religious motive.
The first of the three is a big bear of a friendly Dutchman named Joost (Yorick van Wageningen). When Tom rebuffs him several times and the guy keeps coming back, I couldn’t help but think of Donkey in Shrek. Joost is walking the Way to lose some of his weight, but he loves food so much that he keeps stuffing himself. Then there is the angry Canadian Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger), who sees the trek as a way to quit smoking, and yet she keeps on lighting up, even when Tom urges her to stop. Put off by Tom’s reserve and seriousness, she asks, “Doesn’t this guy ever stop to smell the flowers?” The third companion is the motor mouth Jack (James Nesbitt), an Irish writer who hopes to get over his writer’s block by walking the Way. What’s funny about him is that he writes guidebooks, not fiction! How can anyone get writer’s block while writing something as prosaic as a guidebook!?
Other facts about and motives of the characters are learned as they walk, sometimes together, often (in Tom’s case) alone, and when they stop along the way. Some of the people they meet are also interesting: an inn keeper who wants to be a bull fighter; a kindly priest suffering from brain cancer; and the head of a gypsy family distressed by the prejudice against his people. That his young son steals Tom’s backpack with the precious urn doesn’t help matters. What follows that night and next morning makes for moving viewing.
Along the way Tom thinks back upon a number of the times spent with his son. Regretting now that he had always disapproved of the young man’s free-spirited lifestyle, which he had regarded as irresponsible, he recalls Daniel’s response to his urging him to choose a life: “You don’t choose a life, dad. You live one.” The photography of the mountains and of the sea adds much to the story. A deeply spiritual film, without becoming explicitly Christian, the director/writer’s attention to small details, of the journey and of the development of the various characters (including that of a proud and honest gypsy father), will embed this film in your memory long after those of lesser films have into oblivion.
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