by Joan Ellis
It’s odd to have reservations about a film as unusual and appealing as The Way. This is the work of Emilio Estevez who plays a small role himself while his actual father, Martin Sheen, plays the principal character. It is the story of a father’s journey to retrieve the body of his son who died in a weather accident on the first day of his trek on the Camino de Santiago (known also as the Way of St. James.) Daniel (Emilio Estevez) had just begun the 900 km pilgrimage from Paris to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, the final resting place of Saint James. It is here you will watch the beautiful ritual swinging of the incense filled thurible in the silent majesty of the cathedral.
Estevez wrote, produced, and directed this story of a father who learns of his son’s death by cell phone from the Paris police. Tom (Martin Sheen) leaves immediately for Paris to bring his son’s body home. When Tom decides quite suddenly to finish Daniel’s journey himself, we wonder whether he is paying tribute to his son or whether he intends to test and discover something about himself. In a smart move by the director, Tom’s motives are left unexplained.
The truth of this legendary pilgrimage is that there are probably as many reasons for undertaking it as there are people who decide to do it. It is also true that for anyone, the motivation may morph into something entirely different by the time the trip is over. People from all over the world pick up the path wherever they choose for whatever reason at whatever time works for them.
That brings us to my reservations. Tom is a gruff fellow, a man with a mission, not looking to make friends. He sets off at a brisk pace and the three others who fall in with him are all stubborn, often insufferable individuals. They become a quartet of walkers without connection. Unfortunately, director Estevez paints them all in the primary colors of obnoxiousness and risks alienating his audience. He must have believed that a harsh start with his characters would allow greater room for their transformation, but it isn’t necessarily artful to make people intolerable in order to illustrate their growth.
Yorick van Wageningen, a loudly aggressive Dutchman, would be anyone’s last choice for a companion; James Nesbitt is an Irish narcissist suffering from writer’s block; Deborah Kara Unger is a strong woman desperate to quit her chain smoking. As the story moves forward, we can feel these people making allowances for each other as understanding takes root. Their initially overdrawn personalities melt into growing tolerance, and the movie winds down in a lovely ending where friendship is clear but emotions are left unspoken. This tough band of individuals shows us, without telling us, that the Way has worked its magic just as it has on the people who have walked its length over centuries.
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