Film Review: The Way
By Brendan O’ Regan.
As I am both a fan of Michael Sheen and of the Camino fan I had high expectations for “The Way” and I wasn’t disappointed. The plot explores a damaged father- son relationship and is set against the background of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in Spain. Martin Sheen plays the father, while his son Emilio Estevez who plays the son also wrote and directed the film. This was very much a family project as made clear in the many interviews that they gave when the film was released in 2010.
“The Way” is moving, challenging and thought provoking. It works well on many levels. The visuals are beautiful. We get to see many of the sights and landscapes along the pilgrims’ path. The excellent music, which includes an original score by Tyler Bates, and songs by James Taylor and Alanis Morrisette, subtly enhances the mood of the film. But for all that, it is in character and theme that the film is most impressive. Gradually we get to know the character played by Sheen, and the various personalities he meets along the way, who include a kind Dutchman who is trying to loose weight, but who is too fond of pot, the somewhat clichéd figure of a gregarious Irish author with writer’s block; and a young Canadian woman trying to give up smoking, but who also carries deeper scars. This is a strongly human film, and we feel for its characters.
The Pilgrimage motif and journey metaphor have always been powerful in both film and literature- the journey we take through life, the baggage we carry other than that in our back packs, the varying paths we take, and the people we journey with. But has the theme been overworked? Is there just too much of it? Estevez has the Irish writer (played by James Nesbitt ) revel in the “metaphor bonanza” and yet he wonders if he is being over fanciful – things may be themselves and no more than that. The Sheen character is an eye doctor, suggesting that the film may be about insight, or about how we see the world. Later the Canadian woman suggests that he is trying to help people see the world a little better, raising the question of whether Estevez is afraid we won’t get the symbolism. Or is he trying to forestall criticism of his use of metaphor?
Certainly this is a “religious film,” but I got the sense that Estevez may be uneasy with this – at one stage a minor character says that the journey is not about religion at all. None of the characters makes any connection with God in any way, yet at the film is imbued with religion without being heavy handed. The Sheen character prays, although to begin with he doesn’t see the point. In a key scene the Canadian woman struggles with prayer. Churches and religious images abound, and there are at least two positive priest characters. Even going this far is unusual and welcome in a mainstream film.
There are some fine set piece scenes. Near the start a French policeman explains the nature of the pilgrimage ( when did you last see a religious cop in a film? ), and later, on the road, the travellers discuss the nature of the “true pilgrim”. There is a scene at one point along the way in which tradition dictates that the pilgrims say a prayer at a particular monument. Among the interesting conversations a woman who has had an abortion wonders about her unborn baby – giving a subtle pro-life message. Most moving of all is scene where the pilgrims arrive at the cathedral of Santiago de Compostella and are overcome with a sense of awe and wonder. So are we.
This, of course is not a perfect film. I regretted its ambiguous attitude to soft drugs, and it is not devoid of clichés; but “The Way” is a warming celebration of human solidarity, which is sure to popularise the pilgrimage that it celebrates.