Dir. Emilio Estevez. U.S.A. 2010.

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“No problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it.”- Albert Einstein

Throughout history, pilgrims from all over the world including St. Francis of Assisi, Charlemagne, Ferdinand and Isabella, Dante, and Chaucer (not to mention Shirley MacLaine) have walked the Santiago de Compostela Camino in Spain, a 500-mile trek across highways, mountains, valleys, and fields to seek a more spiritual path in their life. Shot by Juan Miguel Azpiros using only natural light, Emilio Estevez' film, The Way starring Estevez' dad Martin Sheen, provides both intimate and panoramic views of the magnificent scenery of the Basque country of Northern Spain including the small villages, the quaint inns, and the historic cathedrals as we walk the colorful road with four travelers seeking a new beginning.

While on the golf course, Tom Avery (Sheen), a well-to-do California ophthalmologist, receives the shocking news that his son Daniel has been killed in a storm while on a pilgrimage to the Santiago de Compostela cathedral in Galicia, Spain. In France to collect the remains of his son, though over sixty, Avery decides to undertake his own journey on the Camino to finish the trek that Daniel began but could not finish. Carrying his son's ashes in a metal box and scattering them at key points along the way, Avery begins his long walk with only Daniel's backpack strapped to his back. 

Estevez introduces three traveling companions for Tom: Joost (Yorick van Wageningen, a garrulous and somewhat overbearing Dutchman who is doing the trek in order to lose weight (but eats hefty meals along the way), Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger), an angry and irritating feminist from (of all places) Canada, the land of zero charisma, and an egotistical travel writer who introduces himself as Jack from Ireland (James Nesbitt). None of these stock characters are very likeable to say the least, but they do enliven the trip in a series of forced incidents seemingly designed for no other purpose than to stave off an audience rebellion.  

We listen to debates about what a “true pilgrimage” is and one about the identity of Basques. We are privy to a bizarre incident in which an over-the-top innkeeper engaged in a conversation with an imaginary woman, switching chairs when responding (must have been in Gestalt therapy). There are also hijinks with Tom's backpack. First it drops from his hands into rapids below him and is stolen by a gypsy boy. If that isn't distracting enough, we witness the taciturn doctor embark on a drunken verbal rampage that often makes more sense than what he says when he is sober. 

The trek to Compostela has become a big part of Europe's tourist industry and thousands of travelers from every religion and walk of life go each year regardless of the fact that the walk is filled with many Catholic sites along the way. The film, however, is top heavy in its Christian tilt with Sarah delivering a distraught anti-choice message, and the travelers bowing to a sculpture of Sr. James in the Compostela church, and shedding tears during an incense ceremony. There are no religious figures in the film except for a priest who, has to wear a yarmulke to cover a scar on his scalp, an ersatz Jewish aspect whose reason for being is one of life's mysteries. 

As we move on towards journey's end, each character reveals their underlying reasons for making the trip, but their sharing seems more like a convenient plot device than real thoughts and feelings coming from each traveler's heart.  While I welcome a film that does not have sociopaths and psychopaths acting out for our entertainment, The Way never seems to get past a trite notion of what spirituality is all about. Though it is a personal film for the director and correctly points to people's need to seek refuge from the technology that dominates our lives, it tries too hard to be profound while still directing its appeal to the lowest common-denominator, testing our tolerance for a script loaded with banalities, bathos, manipulative crises, and false camaraderie.  

True spirituality is not about seeking a way out of problems such as smoking addiction, losing weight, or getting past writers block but about our relationship to the universe, a personal vision that does not lie in books, rituals, or icons, but in an inner experience of the sacredness of life and in our power to transform its quality at any moment. As Sioux Holy Man, Black Elk expressed it, “The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes from within the souls of men when they realize their relationship, their oneness, with the universe and all its powers, and when they realize its center is really everywhere, it is within each of us.”


Howard Schumann

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