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
to claim the body, and try to find out what happened.
It seems that Daniel had decided to embark on the “El Camino de
to Santiago de Compostela (
It’s a traditional,
old-fashioned religious pilgrimage.
to long-held tradition, the apostle James settled in
(dubious, historically, but we’re not dealing with scientific accuracy
For many centuries
Christian pilgrims have been making this trek across the
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
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
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Co-Pastor, United Presbyterian Church,