For more than a thousand years, pilgrims have made the arduous 500-mile journey from southern France across the Pyrenees Mountains to the town of Compostela in western Spain. There In the cathedral are buried the remains of St. James, the apostle. El Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. Paul, is one of the great pilgrimages of the Christian faith, rivaling the world famous pilgrimages of Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and even the Hajj of Islam to the holy city of Mecca. Last year, over a quarter million people went on El Camino.
The Way is the story of what happens to four solitary pilgrims burdened with a lot of baggage. With a nod to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, The Way is a road trip without wheels, a travelogue of gorgeous Pyrenees scenery, a diary of sore feet and aching hearts. In the end, it’s a tale of the miracles that can happen when you put one foot in front of the other and keep going.
Tom (Martin Sheen) is a joyless, rich California ophthalmologist, a widower estranged from his only son, Daniel (Emilio Estevez, Sheen’s real-life son, who also wrote and directed the film). Tom’s pals on the golf course joke that his only passion is taking care of “the windows of the soul,”—but how would Tom know about that?—he doesn’t have a soul. Ha ha.
A terrible phone call tells Tom that Daniel has died in a storm in France, just as he began the Camino De Santiago pilgrimage. Numb with grief, Tom goes to collect his son’s remains. He has Daniel cremated—and then decides to take the pilgrimage for him. On the first day Tom finds the rough-hewn crucifix that marks the spot where Daniel died. He sprinkles some of Daniel’s ashes there.
Tom wants to walk alone, clutching his grief like a shield to ward off strangers. But fate—or God, or his psyche, whatever you call it—has another plan. Tom is joined by other pilgrims, each of whom has a distrust of Americans in general and lapsed Catholic baby boomers in specific.
Joost (Yorick van Wagening), a gregarious Dutchman with a hearty appetite for food and drugs, claims he’s on the journey to lose weight. Sarah (Debra Kara Unger), a snarly Canadian chain-smoker, is fleeing an abusive husband. Jack (James Nesbitt) from Northern Ireland is plagued with writer’s block, but that doesn’t stop him from reciting non-stop lyrical madness. A moveable quartet is formed—together they suffer the daily travails of the journey—and they argue, they make up, they reveal secrets, tell lies, drive one another bonkers—in essence, they become friends.
The scenery is glorious—windswept peaks, raging rivers, sheep farms, crowded hostels, medieval monasteries, outdoor cafes where everyone is a seeker, even the atheists. Along the way they meet a waiter who thinks he’s a matador, a hotel owner who’s lost his mind, a priest who wears a yarmulke, penitents who whip themselves, and gypsies with apologies.
When they finally reach the magnificent cathedral of St. James in Compostela, they jostle with hundreds of other pilgrims to witness a profound, spectacular sight. During the Mass for the Pilgrims, six monks pull the ropes holding an enormous silver incense burner and swing it across the massive interior of the cathedral. As the clouds of white smoke rise to the soaring ceilings, so too do the prayers of those below, whether they know it or not.
The Way is not for everyone—if you’re not used to contemplation, you might find it slow-going. I absolutely loved every minute of it. My friend found the film so moving, she has already started training to go on the Camino next year.