Director: Emilio Estevez
Screenwriter: Emilio Estevez based on the novel, Off the Road: A Modern-Day Walk Down the Pilgrim's Route by Jack Hitt
Yorick van Wageningen
Deborah Kara Unger
Runtime: 123 mins.
Australian release date: 25 April 2012
Loosely paying homage to The Wizard of Oz, Emilio Estevez’s The Way is a spiritual journey that has its own tornado (the death of a son) and the path to the Emerald City (the 800-kilometre historical pilgrimage known as the Camino de Santiago or, in English, the Way of St James). The route travels all the way from the French Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain. Based on Jack Hitt’s novel Off the Road: A Modern-Day Walk Down the Pilgrim’s Route, the film is a journey of self-discovery in which a father learns about himself through his son, albeit after the son’s demise.
The Way was shot on super 16mm stock using available light during the day and candles and campfires at night and it’s a great approach to recording some ruggedly beautiful countryside. Tom (Martin Sheen), a doctor, suddenly leaves behind his bourgeois life in the US when he learns that his estranged son has died while walking the Camino. He has no intention of going on the journey himself but, while abroad, he begins to discover the difference between “the life we live and the life we choose”. Heading off on the pilgrimage he meets up with various fellow travellers who are doing the walk for very different reasons. They include the Dutchman, Joost (Yorick van Wageningen), full of bravado but who is trying to lose weight before he has the courage to go home to his wife; the Canadian, Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger), an emotional wreck who is planning to stop smoking once the walk is over; and the Irishman Jack (James Nesbitt), who is suffering from writer’s block and hoping for a miraculous cure. Here you have the Lion, the Tin Man and the Scarecrow…
It’s a mixed bunch and each person contributes to a common humanity which turns out to be the spirit of the journey. Sheen approached his role with quiet dignity and felt that he was able to “unite the will of the spirit to the work of the flesh”. In real life the pilgrimage takes 40 days, so there is plenty of time to experience the spiritual and religious aspects that may go with it. In the film, however, the only overtly religious person Tom encounters is a man who Tom thinks is a rabbi, but who turns out to be a priest. The padre wears a yarmulke only because he has recently had an operation on a brain tumour and the cap protects his skull from the elements. It’s a cute little bit of black humour that Estevez uses to throw in a bit of light, spiritual irreverence, without causing a ruckus.
The Way is a wonderful film that has a lot to offer in an age where cynicism is rampant; it speaks about how sometimes we need to let things go in order to get our lives back and, in a parallel observation, about how technology has failed us because it closes people off to what is around them. Excellent cinematography by Juan Miguel Azpiroz (unusually, the scenes were shot in chronological order) and appropriate original music by Tyler Bates (with a little bit of James Taylor thrown in), make the film an overall delight. It could so easily have strayed into over-sentimentality and mawkishness, but it never does and, thus, it stays with you for a long time after the end credits roll.