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DVD REVIEW: ‘The Way’ follows characters on spiritual pilgrimage Gary Keene, Feb 2, 2012
By Gary Keene Special Contributor
The Way Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements, drug use and smoking
The contemporary claim, “I’m spiritual, not religious,” takes visual form via an ancient and visceral mode of spirituality in this small film coming to DVD and Blu-ray on Feb. 21.
Written and directed by Emilio Estevez, featuring his father Martin Sheen, The Way is literally grounded in the Camino del Santiago, the thousand-year-old pilgrimage route flowing from France through Spain to the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela. Mr. Sheen plays Tom Avery, an ophthalmologist and unexpected pilgrim on “the way” of the Camino, and the story follows the question of whether or not it will prove to be a “buen camino,” a good way, a transforming way.
Like so many transformation stories, the life of the film begins with a death: Tom gets a call on the golf course that his semi-prodigal son Daniel (played by Mr. Estevez in flashbacks) has died in a storm while hiking the Camino through the mountainous Pyrenees. On site to retrieve the body, the anguished father decides to hike the Camino, carrying the cremated remains. Thus his journey, and ours, begins.
Of course characters will be introduced along the way, and incidents and anecdotes will accumulate along with them—mostly illuminating those characters without altering Tom’s journey. Shot on location on a tight budget, the film is compelled to be episodic, which does not quite express the lived experience of such a pilgrimage, and the cinematography does not quite do justice to the lyrical beauty of northern Spain. Even the music, mostly contemporary and popular, is out of sync with the implicit foreignness of Tom’s trek (except for a rewarding gypsy scene.)
So the weight of the film tends to hang on Mr. Sheen’s performance, which for a while seems oddly enigmatic. True to his talent, we feel his anguish at the initial loss of his son, and this flares up in various forms throughout the story. But mostly he seems to be on a forced march, brusque and evasive to the inquiries of those who fall into his company. Over time, his singular focus and energy strip away our expectations, so that he becomes the empty vessel through which the filmgoer begins to imagine their own journey.
That is as it should be. Along the way, a gypsy tells Tom the pilgrimage is not about religion, “it is the farthest thing from religion.” Yet clearly it is a spiritual journey for any who take it up. When they finally arrive in Santiago at the cathedral and attend a mass, each of the accompanying pelligrinos are moved in various ways, but the soundtrack does not give voice to those. Instead, the visuals do the work. (The merry Dutchman who first joined Tom is the only one to enter the cathedral in proscribed form—on his knees. For him to do so finally tells us the depth of sincerity of his pilgrimage.)
In the end, they have all followed the same, well-worn path, and come to the same physical place. But each has had a different journey, and come to different conclusions; as Augustine said, “Salvatore ambulando.” That is the process, but the result, the consequence, the transformation is made overt in a comment to Tom along the way: “An ophthalmologist, eh, help people change how they see?” Yes, and when that happens, the world changes within, and thus around us.
The Rev. Keene lives and eats popcorn in Pasadena, Calif.