By Mary Claire Kendall
A good friend of my father has seen Emilio Estevez’s film The Way three times. The Way is about a father who travels to France to recover the body of his estranged son, who died in the Pyrenees during a violent storm—just one day into his journey along “El camino de Santiago,” also known as “The Way of St. James.”
My father’s friend is about to see it a fourth time. Now that I’ve seen the film, I know why.
Not only does Martin Sheen, who portrays the father, give a brilliant performance; but the screenplay by Estevez, who plays the son, is masterful; the direction, also by Estevez, production values and cinematography, superb.
Quite simply, this film, which has Oscar written all over it, is a beautiful, mesmerizing film, with layer after layer of meaning—achieved without any 3-D technology or special effects extravaganza.
Its secret is the subtle yet rich, multi-dimensional portrayal of humanity and spirituality. Nothing hits you over the head, except, of course, the sudden death of Daniel (the son) at the outset; the magnificent vistas along “The Way” as Tom (the father) relives and honors his son’s memory; and, at the end, when the four travelers, Wizard of Oz-like, arrive at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostella in Galicia in northwestern Spain in a stunning denouement.
Tom, an American opthamologist, initially had no plan other than to bring the remains of his son home to California. Then, he begins to learn about the 800-kilometer-long “El camino” leading to the Cathedral, where, tradition has it, the remains of the apostle Saint James are buried.
In 40 or 41 A.D., Our Lady traveled with angels to see St. James in Zaragoza in northeastern Spain, and tell him Jesus wished him to return to Jerusalem, where he would be martyred. St. Augustine writes about the episode in The City of God, revealed through an apparition to a nun, the only such apparition before Our Lady’s Assumption. Our Lady was carried by angels at night on a cloud to Zaragoza. During the trip, the angels built a pillar of marble and a miniature image of Our Lady. When they all arrived, Our Lady delivered Jesus’ message to St. James, and also asked that a church be built on the site of the apparition. The main altar, she said, would feature the pillar and image and special protective graces would flow to the people of Zaragoza for their devotion to Mary and Jesus.
Legend has it that St. James’ remains were transported by boat from Jerusalem to northwestern Spain. When his burial site was discovered over 1000 years ago during medieval times, “The Way” began attracting numerous pilgrims and became one of the most popular pilgrimages, together with those to Rome (Via Francigena) and Jerusalem. However, the Black Death, Protestant Reformation and 16th century political unrest diminished travel along “The Way,” down to just a few pilgrims by 1980. Then interest surged, whereupon travel steadily rose to nearly 5,000 pilgrims in 1990 and over 272,000 twenty years later.
That’s the awe-inspiring backdrop of the film.
While, Tom, a non-practicing Catholic, initially has just one purpose when he arrives, he soon feels impelled by some mystical force to join the pilgrims along “The Way”—putatively, solely to honor his son’s memory.
It’s a heartwarming journey full of colorful scenic and cultural vignettes and unforgettable, all-too-human characters, searching for more meaning in their lives. This is especially true in the case of the three characters Tom ends up traveling with, whom, as he plays off of them, inject humor as well as pathos as the layers of their lives are peeled away—revealing their loss, brokenness and pain.
The film has a touching scene upholding life’s sacredness from conception. However, the cremation of Daniel and related details could render Tom’s choice problematic given his initial weak faith. “The Church permits cremation,” the official Catechism says, “provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body.” And, while his choice is clearly cinematic—albeit Daniel’s appearances along the way are equally if not more compelling—it’s important to note, cremation is “permitted,” not “recommended.”
This is the seventh time father and son, Sheen and Estevez, have worked together.
Interestingly, in an LA radio interview on “The Busted Halo Show with Father Dave,” Estevez revealed the film’s inspiration was none other than a pilgrimage Sheen and grandson Taylor made a few years earlier on “The Way,” where Estevez’s son, then only 19, met and fell in love with his future wife, soon moving to Spain, where his great-grandfather, to whom the film is devoted, was born.
Truly, it’s a family affair—and not just for Sheen and his family but for many other families, as well.
Published in The Wanderer, December 15, 2011