Faith & Film: The Way

Tom (Martin Sheen) is a successful Southern California ophthalmologist, living a comfortable life. He has a distant relationship with his son, Daniel (Sheen’s real life son, Emilio Estevez) who is something of a free spirit. Tom drives Daniel to the airport to take a flight to France where he will begin a spiritual journey. Tom is not happy with Daniel, thinking he is irresponsible. A few days later, while playing golf with his friends, Tom receives a call telling him that Daniel was found dead in the Pyrenees. Grief-stricken, Tom flies to France to claim his son’s body.

In Southern France, Tom learns that Daniel had begun the ancient pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, where St. James the Apostle is buried. Tom, a lapsed Catholic, knows little about this pilgrimage, and initially wonders why anyone would want to make it. Yet, as Tom begins to look through Daniel’s backpack, and listens to a sympathetic police officer, he becomes curious. After some consideration, Tom decides to go on the pilgrimage.

“The Way” is the story of Tom’s pilgrimage, and the people he meets along the way. Each has his/her own story. Three pilgrims become Tom’s companions: Joost, a Dutchman who takes the pilgrimage in order to lose weight; Sarah, a Canadian who wants to stop smoking; and Jack, an Irish writer who seeks a cure for his writer’s block. As you may imagine, there is more to these pilgrim’s motivations than the reasons they give. Even they may not be fully aware of their deeper motivations early on the way. It is the camino itself that helps the pilgrims discover their true reasons.

Among the pilgrims, Tom remains the focus of the story. He is angry and bitter at the beginning, pushing others away from him. However, events along his journey begin to have an impact on Tom. Two events in particular change Tom: First, he learns a lesson in humility when he finds himself in a Spanish jail after a drunken tirade. Second, a young Spanish gypsy steals Tom’s backpack. Tom is moved when the boy’s father returns the backpack, asks forgiveness, then invites Tom and friends to a family dinner. With these and other episodes, Tom’s anger, bitterness, and arrogance begin to crumble and he becomes more human. Tom begins to open up to Joost, Sarah, and Jack and see himself as a member of the human race. As he becomes more human, Tom begins to become more spiritual: he is kinder, more open, less judgmental, and freer.

Written and directed by Estevez, “The Way” is a good movie, well worth seeing, but not a great one. Certainly this reflective movie which takes spirituality seriously is a rarity these days. “The Way” is a very Catholic movie, with its emphasis on pilgrimage. Conversion happens gradually, even imperceptibly, along the way of life. As Tom discovers, the pilgrims who share our journey are not accidental to our spiritual growth, they are absolutely necessary; even (perhaps especially) the ones who annoy us the most. Also, Tom’s two greatest moments of conversion (landing in jail and the return of the backpack) are moments in which he is taken down a notch, realizing that he is no better than his companions. His conversion moments do not occur after Tom demonstrates some great act of compassion or mercy, but when he learns that he needs mercy and forgiveness as much as anyone else. We learn more from our mistakes than from our successes.

The weakness of “The Way” is that that the screenplay by Estevez does not delve deep enough into the characters, especially Tom’s three companions. I didn’t feel like I got to know them as well as I could have. Why did they really go on the pilgrimage? Why was the seemingly carefree Joost the only one to fall to his knees at the Shrine? Why is Jack so angry at the church? Sarah mentions briefly an abortion, and hearing the voice of her unborn child. But I wanted to know more about them. There’s a moment in a great movie in which a brief dialogue or a simple action really touches my soul, and lets me know I absolutely understand the character. An example of such a moment was Robert Duvall’s magnificent funeral speech in last year’s “Get Low.” I was waiting for such a moment in “The Way,” but it never came.

A fellow friar told me that he liked “The Way” more on his second viewing. I look forward to seeing it again, hoping to find a more of the depth I missed on first viewing.

Despite my reservation, I recommend “The Way.” It’s a journey well worth taking.

Tom Condon, OP