Some films entertain the viewer by keeping them in suspense letting the story twist and turn as it unfolds, others let you know upfront where the story is going and leave it to the art of story-telling to draw you in. This film from Director Emilio Estevez belongs to the latter. There really is no ‘plot’ to spoil – but I promise not to spoil the detail of how the story is told.
Tom (Martin Sheen) is a morose widower with his own Ophthalmic practice in California. His (also real-life) son Daniel (Emilio Estevez) is completing his PhD studies at Berkeley but as he approaches his 40’s he wants more from life than the title Doctor. He wants to travel and learn from the University of the road and so he drops out of his studies – much to the displeasure of his father.
Daniel’s travels take him to the Pyrenees where he decides to embark on the ‘Camino di Santiago’ (The Way of St James’) – an ancient pilgrims route from France, across Northern Spain to the city of Santiago di Compostela where the Apostle James’ remains are enshrined in the Cathedral. The 1000 km route attracts thousands of pilgrims each year who travel the way staying in hostels along the route. Each pilgrim has their own reason for travelling ‘The Camino’ (The Way) – often not religious reasons.
Daniel gets lost in the Pyrenees and is caught out by the weather and dies. The unwelcome news of his son’s death reaches Tom as he is enjoying a round of golf with colleagues – living the comfortable life-style his hard work has enabled him to choose. Tom travels to France straight away to identify the body and return it to the USA.
The local Police Captain is a wise and kindly man who helps Tom to understand why people go on the ‘The Camino’. This further mystifies Tom who still doesn’t understand why Daniel did what he did. In a split second of clarity, Tom decides to have Daniel’s body cremated and armed only with Daniel’s guide book and back pack sets off along The Way. Tom carefully takes Daniel’s ashes and deposits some of them at shrines along The Way.
Whilst the characterisations are compelling and the cinematography depicts the varied landscapes beautifully, the script is at times clunky and less refined. That ‘The Way’ is a metaphor for the journey of life is made clear early on – yet we have to be told that is the case by the Irishman Jack (James Nesbitt) one of Tom’s travelling companions picked up along the way. The metaphor is extended to show that whilst Tom would prefer to complete the pilgrimage in isolation, real life forces us to encounter and journey with others – and we can’t always choose who our companions are. The other two who make up the journeying quartet are Joost (Yorick van Wageningen), a jovial and benevolent epicurean from Amsterdam and Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger), an angry Canadian women who projects her hang-ups on to others as she chain-smokes her way to Santiago.
The dynamics between the four of them and the encounters they face along the way provide the grist for the mill of the story telling as Tom, and the others, face their issues and reconcile their internal and external demons. Throughout the journey, Daniel keeps spookily appearing in Tom’s mind’s eye to turn the screw of guilt and remorse a little tighter. Some of the pilgrims expect change to come about simply because they have subjected themselves to the discipline of ‘The Way’ whilst others find it requires self-examination and possibly a change of heart to enable them to see more clearly and move on in their understanding of life.
Although presenting a formulaic road movie, the acting, setting and context make this a very worthwhile film. This is another film that holds up a mirror to the viewer and invites them to reflect on their life goals, relationships and the need to enjoy the here and now rather than some distant and unreachable ideal. It invites a move towards personal authenticity within community rather the pursuit of a dream that serves only self and ultimately alienates everyone – even those who should be closest. Daniel died whilst trying to truly live, Tom was seemingly dead in the life he thought he’d chosen.