Pras on World Films: THE WAY

The title of “The Way” refers to the Camino de Santiago de Campostela, the 1,000-year old route from France to northern Spain that thousands of peregrinos, or pilgrims, walk each year, ending at the site where the remains of Saint James are reportedly buried.

The WayWriter-director Emilio Estevez follows four pilgrims, including dad Martin Sheen, in search of emotional meaning on El Camino de Santiago. The Way, written and directed by Emilio Estevez and starring his father  Martin Sheen in one of Sheen’s best performances, depicts a spiritual journey.

Sheen plays Tom Avery, a California ophthalmologist and also a widower long  estranged from his only son, Daniel (Estevez), a wanderer Tom rejects for his  lack of focus. When Tom learns that Daniel has died in a storm in the French  Pyrenees, he leaves immediately to collect the body. Instead, he collects the  truth about who his son was. Daniel had just started a pilgrimage along  the Camino de Santiago, an 800-mile trek from the Pyrenees to the Cathedral  of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, the burial place of St. James. But as we  learn, the journey can be motivated by reasons outside a search for God. Even as  Tom stops along the way to spread the ashes of his son (played Estevez in  flashbacks), he is stubborn non-believer.  Armed with his son’s backpack and guidebook, Tom navigates the 800 km pilgrimage from the French Pyrenees, to Santiago de Compostela in the north west of Spain, but soon discovers that he will not be alone on this journey. While walking The Camino, Tom meets other pilgrims from around the world, all broken and looking for greater meaning in their lives: a Dutchman (Yorick van Wageningen) a Canadian (Deborah Kara Unger) and an Irish writer (James Nesbitt) who is suffering from a bout of “writer’s block.” From the hardship experienced along “The Way” this unlikely quartet of misfits create an everlasting bond and Tom begins to learn what it means to be a citizen of the world again, and discovers the difference between “The life we live and the life we choose”. THE WAY was filmed entirely in Spain and France along the actual Camino de Santiago.

Mr. Sheen plays an ophthalmologist named Tom, whose only son, Daniel (Mr. Estevez), dies in severe weather in the Pyrenees while trying to walk the Way of St. James (also known as the Camino de Santiago), a pilgrimage of hundreds of miles that ends in northwest Spain at a cathedral where the Apostle James is said to be buried. Tom goes to retrieve his son’s body and ends up walking the pilgrimage himself, scattering Daniel’s ashes along the way.

The Way is a powerful and inspirational story about family, friends, and the challenges we face while navigating this ever changing and complicated world. Martin Sheen plays Tom, an irascible American doctor who comes to St. Jean Pied de Port, France to collect the remains of his adult son (played by Emilio Estevez), killed in the Pyrenees in a storm while walking The Camino de Santiago, also known as The Way of Saint James. Rather than return home, Tom decides embark on the historical pilgrimage to honor his son’s desire to finish the journey. What Tom doesn’t plan on, is the profound impact the journey will have on him and his “California Bubble Life”. Inexperienced as a trekker, Tom soon discovers that he will not be alone on this journey.

The gentle drama offers an intriguing look at the contemporary version of an ancient ritual, and is anchored by the on-screen work of the writer-director’s father, Martin Sheen. At its best, “The Way” addresses the matter of privilege; among its most compelling scenes is a healthy argument about what it means to be a “true pilgrim” in the 21st century. The film is really a gift from this son to his father. Sheen, gradually  revealing a man painfully getting reacquainted with long buried feelings, who  gives the film its bruised heart. This is not an “inspirational film” in the usual, syrupy sense; none of these people are overtly finding God on this trek. The beauty of the movie, in fact, is that Mr. Estevez does not make explicit what any of them find, beyond friendship. He lets these four fine actors convey that true personal transformations are not announced with fanfare, but happen internally.   Martin Sheen gives a lovely performance as the no-nonsense doctor, and he gets wonderful support from actors playing fellow travelers who befriend Tom: Yorick van Wageningen as a verbose Dutchman, Deborah Kara Unger as an acid-tongued woman trying to quit smoking, and James Nesbitt as an Irishman with writer’s block. Yorick van Wageningen is the most convincing of the trio, playing gluttonous, gregarious and kind “Joost from Amsterdam,” as he usually introduces himself. James Nesbitt’s “Jack from Ireland,” a blocked travel writer, enters the story like a mad poet, in a bit of actorly overkill set in a scarecrow-friendly field. And as Sarah, the world’s only angry Canadian, Deborah Kara Unger portrays a character whose pain-beneath-the-swagger is evident but who’s never entirely persuasive.

Emilio Estevez is both writer and director of this film, and also turns up in a small role, but he gives the spotlight to his father, who makes quite a lot out of a low-key story that could easily have degenerated into mush.

THE WAY        Written and directed by Emilio Estevez; director of photography, Juanmi Azpiroz; edited by Raúl Dávalos; music by Tyler Bates; art direction by Víctor Molero; costumes by Tatiana Hernández; produced by Mr. Estevez and David Alexanian; released by Producers Distribution Agency and Arc Entertainment. Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes. This film is not rated.

WITH: Emilio Estevez (Daniel), Martin Sheen (Tom), Deborah Kara Unger (Sarah), Yorick van Wageningen (Joost) and James Nesbitt (Jack).

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