The Way
Here’s a typical Presbyterian: Tom (Martin Sheen) is a 60-something ophthalmologist whose life is filled with the anesthetizing effect of routine tedium, expertly droned by the uber-efficient receptionist: Mr. Smith wants to come in early before he goes to work, Mrs. Brown would like to see you again this week because her contact lens are still bothering her, and your tee time is 2 p.m. As for Mrs. Green, well, she memorizes the eye chart because she doesn’t want her license taken away.
Tom trudges through his work day with about the same excitement as a glaucoma examination. He’s not a very good golfer, either. But his buddies are faithful about their routine heckling, and at least that’s something. His wife has died and his only son, Daniel (Emilio Estevez, yes, the real-life son of Martin Sheen) is estranged, wandering around Europe somewhere, not even trying to “find himself”---he’s too old for that----but just because he wants to see new places. As if blatantly rejecting the bland workaday life of his moderately successful, largely isolated, and completely boring father.
Then Tom receives the one phone call that every parent dreads the most: his son is dead. A tragic accident. It’s the French gendarmes, and Tom must journey to France to claim the body, and try to find out what happened.
It seems that Daniel had decided to embark on the “El Camino de Santiago” from France to Santiago de Compostela ( Spain ). It’s a traditional, old-fashioned religious pilgrimage. According to long-held tradition, the apostle James settled in Spain (dubious, historically, but we’re not dealing with scientific accuracy here, anyway). For many centuries Christian pilgrims have been making this trek across the Pyrenees to put at the feet of James’ statue their specific requests---whatever those may be, but most travel out of some sense of unresolved guilt. Though the journey is many kilometers, Daniel, apparently, perished after the first day, because of some freak storm in the area.
At first, Tom is incredibly bitter as he anguishes through the horrible experience of identifying his son’s lifeless body, knowing that the long-hoped for reconciliation is now impossible. However, a plan begins to take shape as Tom learns more about this popular pilgrimage: Tom will complete what Daniel had only started. Not quite knowing why, Tom takes Daniel’s backpack, his ashes, and a grim determination to do something grand in his honor.
Along the way, Tom meets some characters who have their own set of emotional agendas: a Dutchman whose girlfriend has thrown him out, a Canadian who disdains all “Yankees,” especially Baby Boomers, and an Irish novelist with writer’s block. None of them are really charming. They are all needy, a bit forlorn, and not necessarily religious.
But there’s something that binds them together: some shred of camaraderie, as they become pilgrims in each other’s emotional journeys, as well.
At the end, though finally arriving at the apostolic shrine is a tremendous relief for them all, they each realize that the journey itself was the real destination.
Tom is not a loveable character. He’s irascible, he’s patronizing, and he’s angrily independent when even a little lowering of his guard would have helped him more than he knew. But he feels real. As do the other characters. Not only will this film probably produce a rash of new pilgrims along this ancient “El Camino,” it will probably awaken a longing for spiritual experience that may only be available when you go do something completely “out of the box.”
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Co-Pastor, United Presbyterian Church, Irving , Texas