CERT 12A, 140 MINS n American, a Dutchman, a Canadian and an Irishman are walking together on the road to Compostela. It ounds like the beginning of a joke, ut then that’s rather appropriate, iven the interplay of humour and ragedy that underpins Emilio stevez ’s film The Way.
It begins with a sign: “Welcome to entura: A Preserve America ommunity.” Dr Tom Avery, an phthalmologist in late middle-age iving in southern California, is playng golf with his colleagues when he eceives a call on his mobile. A rench policeman informs him that aniel, his only son, has been killed n a freak storm in the Pyrenees hile on the Camino de Santiago. he father sets out to retrieve his on’s body. Yet Tom, full of scepti cism and doubt, ends up retrieving far more than that. He decides to complete the Camino himself, taking his son’s ashes with him, scattering them along the road to Compostela.
The film is beautifully shot and scripted – wide, rolling landscapes lie beneath the rapidly changing light from dawn to sunset across a mountainside peppered with the silent trinities of wind turbines. Add to this a sensitive soundtrack that ranges from James Taylor to The Shins and Coldplay, and you have the perfect setting for a modern odyssey.
On the Camino Tom falls in with three other pilgrims. Each pilgrim’s quest, whether to lose weight, make peace with mistakes of the past, conquer writer’s block or mourn a lost son, is gradually and subtly revealed. Personal quirks, the discomfort of travelling on foot for so long, the insalubrious characters they meet along the way, all act as catalysts for the interior discoveries that are made. The broken conversations and chance meetings as people’s journeys intersect form a steady rhythm as they start to fall into pace with each other.
Early on in the film Daniel tells his father: “You don’t choose a life, you live one.” This theme runs like a thread through the narrative as Tom walks, becoming the reluctant confidant of each pilgrim. The film charts that mysterious process whereby an unspoken bond comes into being, as the disparate band, hostile to each other when they start out, learn to accept each other’s habits and coexist. Jack’s constant note-taking and Tom’s tetchy demeanour eventually stop grating as the film unfolds, and they begin to rely on each other. At one point falling into a river, at another snatched away by a Romani boy, the silver box in Tom’s backpack is at the very heart of the film. Without his son’s ashes, Tom has no motivation to go any further. He isn’t doing the Camino for his own sake, but in an odd, mysterious way, for his son’s. Glimpses of Daniel, smiling and wordless along the way, hint at the private workings of a father’s grief for his lost child. Martin Sheen’s complex and moving portrayal of Tom constantly breaks through the stereotype of the materialistic baby boomer projected on to to him.
The stamps that the pilgrims collect along their journey build into the rhythm of the film until the very last stamp at the end of the Camino, when they are each asked why they did the pilgrimage. They are no longer the cynical, self-protective characters we first encountered, and they each hesitate before going beyond the well-rehearsed answers we had heard repeated throughout the film. The bravado is stripped away when they reach their journey’s end and stand at the doors of the cathedral. Jack’s bitter description of the “temple of tears” that the Church in Ireland represents for him takes on a different meaning as tears of gratitude fall silently from the pilgrims’ eyes. The meaning of their journey hasn’t always been clear, and there is no grand summary of what they have learned, and yet it is all the more poignant for being understated.
The pace and visual style of The Way are enough to make anyone feel the pilgrim itch. Estevez has managed to avoid falling into the trap of simplifying or pinning down too strictly a complex journey that means something different to each person who travels it. Moving masterfully between the meditative and the comic, the sublime landscapes and the uncomfortable realities of sleeping in a dormitory with 30-odd noisy, smelly people, Estevez doesn’t put a foot wrong. But then righting a wrong foot is what the Camino experience is all about.