Movie Review: “The Way”

“You don’t choose a life. You live one.”

This movie review is probably about 10 years too late to be of use to anyone but myself. Of course, this whole blog certainly doesn’t mean much, if anything, to anyone but me. Blog posts tend to be narcissistic exercises, don’t they? Mine do, at least. No matter what topic I try to cover objectively, I can’t help but reflect on what it means to me personally and what insights about myself it brings forth in me. Such is the case with my viewing of “The Way” (2011), written and directed by Emilio Estévez, starring his father Martin Sheen.

I’ve known about “The Way” for some time, having a deep affinity for the city of Santiago de Compostela, in Galicia, Spain, and its glorious cathedral, which I visited in 1998. I was moved to watch it finally this week because of different unresolved issues in my own life. I won’t go into all the details here. Suffice it to say that I’ve come to understand what it means to have a midlife crisis, although I don’t know that that’s exactly what I’m going through. Mine isn’t manifested with a desire to date young girls, buy a sports car, or get a hair transplant. I love being a father and a husband. And I’m beyond fortunate to have the career that I do. At the same time, however, I do miss having the virility that I once had and the same passion for traveling and life, in general.

Interview with Martin Sheen on “The Way,” fatherhood and spirituality

At the beginning of 2020, I tried to regain my health and vitality by running. I had the thought of running half marathons and marathons. I ran almost every day over the first 10 months of 2020. I remember one week when I ran 10 kilometers each day. I eventually worked up to a half marathon distance, although the pandemic made me have to do it by myself. The return of the school year and cold weather made me lose my good habits, and I returned to the form I had previous to starting. Since then, my brother began a running routine. Growing up, he was always a bit awkward when it came to physical activities, while I played different sports and even became the captain of my high school football team. (Don’t let that fact impress you; we were a horrible team.) In the short time he’s been running, he just completed a 50 kilometer race, and he’s actually quite fast, too. I also learned of a former fellow graduate student at UCLA while I was there, Wanderley, from Brazil, who now competes in ultra marathons of upwards of 100 miles. Such feats astound me. And while most people wouldn’t attempt such an endeavor, I understand the appeal of it. I, too, long to regain health and spend time in nature, which has a spiritual and mysterious quality that I want to connect to. A few days ago, my dad told me about a documentary he saw on the Camino de Santiago, which he found interesting. I was thinking of all of this when I decided finally to watch “The Way.”

Movie poster of “The Way”

The title of “The Way” refers to the Way of Saint James, a pilgrimage of several different routes, the most popular of which starts in the south of France and leads westward through the north of Spain, all the way to the city of Santiago de Compostela, where tradition says that the remains of Saint James, the apostle, are buried. My good friend Brian, a staunch Catholic who was with me during my formative year in Spain and now has a blog of his own based on the theme of pilgrimages, has long expressed a desire to do this walk. And I have expressed my desire to walk it with him, even though life seems always to get in the way. It’s easy to find excuses not to do things these days.

“The Way” is the fictional story of Dr. Tom Avery, played by Martin Sheen, an older ophthalmologist from California. Although he is a widower with an adult son whom he doesn’t hear from very often, he has a comfortable life and he enjoys playing golf with his friends at the local country club. It is on the links that he receives a call that his only child is dead, an event which starts the events of the movie in motion. His son, Daniel, had left home some time earlier to begin a life of travel and adventure. Previously, he was studying a doctorate in anthropology, but he left the program because he wanted to experience the world at his own pace and in person, not in books. His father did not support him, unfortunately. In a flashback in which Tom takes Daniel to the airport, the son invites his father to join him on an adventure. Tom refuses, stating: “My life here might not seem like much to you, but it’s the life I choose.” To which Daniel responds: “You don’t choose a life, dad, you live one.”

“The Way” movie trailer

When Tom receives the phone call about the death of his son, all he knows is that he died accidentally in the south of the France, in the Pyrenees, on the first day of his planned pilgrimage to Santiago. Upon arriving in France, the police captain with whom Tom had been working with informs him about what the Camino is. The captain himself had lost a son and walked the Camino several times. Regretting what has happened to his son and his previous inability to understand him, Tom decides to have him cremated instead of bringing his body back to the States. With the cremated remains of his only son in a small box, Tom decides to walk the Camino using his son’s equipment.

Although Tom decides to walk the Way by himself, he ends up having some companions, the first of which is Joost from Amsterdam, played by Yorick van Wageningen, who is starting his trek at the same time. Joost is very outgoing and talkative. He’s doing the pilgrimage for health reasons. His brother is getting married, so he wants to lose weight to fit into his suit instead of buying a new one. Along the way, he’ll also reveal that his wife no longer finds him desirable, due to his shape. This odd couple of sorts, Tom and Joost, first meet in a restaurant prior to the departure. Tom is very closed off from everyone and doesn’t want to reveal anything about himself to Joost or anyone else for that matter. They end up seeing each other a few times during the first few days of the trip, and Tom ends up putting up with Joost tagging along after sharing another meal in Pamplona. Despite his goal to lose weight, Joost loves to eat and drink. Joost embodies the Dutch stereotype of being a recreational drug user and lover of parties.

Documentary on The Way of St. James from Planet Doc

Tom meets the eventual third member of the party, a Canadian named Sarah, played by Deborah Kara Unger, while staying at an inn outside of Pamplona. She’s brash, rude, and insulting to Tom, even though she knows nothing about him. It seems that she’s walking the Camino for vague spiritual reasons, but initially she only reveals that she’s planning to give up cigarettes upon arriving in Santiago. Later, we’ll learn that behind her tough facade, there’s a lot of pain stemming from her physically abusive ex-husband and her decision to have an abortion. Despite the friction between her and Tom, their shared connection of having lost a child creates an unspoken bond.

The fourth member of the party, Jack from Ireland, played by James Nesbitt, is added a few days later. Jack is a writer who walks the Camino in hopes that it will cure his writer’s block. While on the road, he’s gathering information for a book on the pilgrimage. It is only after a long time on the trail together and several shared tribulations that Tom relents and allows Jack to include his amazing story in his book.

Tom has some hardships along the way, including carelessly dropping his backpack off a bridge into a river, getting arrested for public drunkenness, having his backpack stolen by a young gitano, and getting punched in the face by Sarah. Some of these situations seemed a bit contrived to me, but they serve the purpose of having unplanned misfortunes for the protagonist to deal with. The most poignant thing that happens to Tom repeatedly during his hike, and it made me a bit emotional each time, was that he saw his son frequently, not as a ghost or a pile of ashes, but as he might have been if he had been able to take his journey.

On the roof of the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. I’m in the top row, second from right. Brian is in the back row; his head is the highest in the shot.

The movie comes to its climax as the pilgrims arrive at the cathedral in Santiago. It was a moving scene that almost didn’t happen, as the crew didn’t receive permission to film there until about 48 hours prior. Each character experiences something moving while there. And it was moving for me, too, not just because of what the characters are experiencing, but also because everything looked familiar to me. I remember quite clearly placing my hand on the pillar that all pilgrims touch, going down to Santiago’s tomb, and watching the enormous botafumeiro swing high through the cathedral, dispersing incense throughout. There are two more brief scenes in the film. The first is in Muxía, a beautiful town on the coast, as recommended to Tom by the father of the gitano who stole his backpack, where he spread Daniel’s remaining ashes. And in an epilogue, we see Tom continuing his travels in Morocco.

“The Way” wasn’t a perfect movie. I would’ve liked to see more interactions with the Spanish people other than the brief conversations with quirky albergue owners and the superstitious, thieving gitanos in gold chains dancing flamenco. And it would’ve been nice to have at least one of the pilgrims who was hiking the Camino for religious reasons. There is an encounter with a priest from New York on the road who is looking for a miracle for his brain cancer, but it is a brief one. But Estévez didn’t set out to make a cultural, historical, or religious film. It’s not a documentary, after all. I think many of us who are moved by the portrayal of father/son relationships will find “The Way” to be extremely moving at times. And for Hispanophiles, the cinematography is gorgeous. Not to be overlooked is the soundtrack, which includes songs such as James Taylor’s “Country Road,” Coldplay’s “Lost,” and Alanis Morissette’s “Thank You,” all of which provide lyrics that are relevant to the film’s themes of walking, traveling, and gratitude.

Interview with Martin Sheen and Emilio Estévez about “The Way” on Houston Public Media

One unexpected thought I had as I was watching “The Way” was that Martin Sheen looked vaguely similar to my dad in terms of his stature and hair. I hadn’t noticed that before. They’re also both from the same generation, more or less. Of course, in terms of their personalities, Tom Avery and my dad are quite different. Dad has had a number of back surgeries for nerve issues, and he recently had a total knee replacement surgery. So, he would no longer be able to do a pilgrimage such as this. However, I know that my dad still has trips he’d like to take. Ireland, for example, is one place he’s talked about a lot. I was really pleased that he and my brother were able to go to Spain with me a little over 20 years ago. I now regret not being more proactive in showing him around Spain or taking him to other places. I can identify with Daniel, my namesake, because of his adventurous spirit, which I once had. Unlike Daniel’s experience, however, my dad always supported my travels, even if he didn’t understand it. He never judged me. On the contrary, he was proud to tell others about my trips and what I was seeing. “The Way” makes me want to reconnect with my dad in a more profound way and thank him for his steadfast love, while I still can, which is probably the biggest compliment I can give the film.

Here are my final takeaways. “The Way” reminds me that I should always support my children, even if they don’t take my advice. They will need to walk their own path, just as I have walked mine. I would love to be able to walk the Camino with my family. My biggest desire is that I can expose them to as many foreign adventures and languages as possible, so that they won’t have regrets as they age. As they grow and become independent, hopefully they’ll invite me to participate in their adventures. May God give me the health to be able to accompany them.

Have you seen “The Way”? If so, let us know what you thought about it in the comments below. And if you liked this post, please consider sharing it on your favorite social media. ¡Gracias, y buen camino!

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