It’s impossible to view this film without drawing parallels between Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Emilio Estevez’ The Way. Both unfold as a journey to a holy shrine undertaken by diverse pilgrims who come to reveal themselves to each other, and to themselves, as they are tested by the rigors of the landscape and the physical hardships of the odyssey.
Martin Sheen embraces the role of Tom, who travels to France to collect the remains of his son Dan (played by Emilio Estevez, his son in real life) who has died accidentally during his pilgrimage on the 800KM Camino de Santiago. Tom is a staid ophthalmologist who has lived a conservative lifestyle, while Dan has sought his interpretation of a more meaningful existence by testing boundaries and pushing the envelope. Neither fully accepts or understands the raison d’etre of the other in a classic father/son standoff.
In an effort to assuage his grief and grasp the motivation behind Dan’s pilgrimage, Tom determines to trace the journey in his son’s footsteps, leaving some of Dan’s ashes at various way stations along the Camino as a way of honoring his memory and accomplishing for Dan what he is physically unable to complete for himself.
But, this being a pilgrimage, no one’s journey is a solitary one, so Tom is reluctantly thrown into the mix with follow travelers. There is Joost, the jovial Dutchman, who is seeking to regain his wife’s affection, Sarah, a prickly Canadian, who is trying to quit smoking and recover from an abusive marriage, and Jack, a hard-drinking Irishman with writer’s block, whose next big novel will be a thinly disguised rehash of the lives of his fellow pilgrims. There are as many reasons for making the pilgrimage as there are pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago.
Along the way, we are in turn amused by the interactions among four such diverse seekers, and moved by poignant self-revelations. This is all played out against the scenic backdrop of the breathtaking Pyrennes and the Basque country, mingled with the quaintness of small villages. Here, affable innkeepers gather the sojourners offering respite and relaxation before the journey begins anew the next day. Food and drink are plentiful, but accommodations are sparse and crowded, further breaking down the physical and emotional barriers that separate the seekers.
Glimpses of Dan in the faces of his fellow travelers reassure Tom that father and son are moving towards a reconciliation, and that the journey has become as much a spiritual trek as it has been a physical one. Dan reminds his father, “You don’t choose a life, you live it.” We sense that Tom has awakened a capacity for allowing, as much as he has clung to his rigid philosophy of choice.
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