Monday, October 10, 2011

The Way [2010]

MPAA (I) CNS/USCCB (A-III) Roger Ebert (3 Stars) Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing -
CNS/USCCB review -
Roger Ebert's review -

The Way [2010] (written and directed by Emilio Estevez) is a story that may, at times, (rightfully) irritate more traditional Catholics even as all of us would probably recognize/appreciate the story's honesty and reality.  Most Americans will also be familiar with the going-ons/sufferings of the Sheen/Estevez family of late and this only adds to the story's poignancy.

Widower, opthamologist Tom (played by Martin Sheen) from Ventura, California (on the Pacific Coast Highway, between Santa Barbara and L.A.) with a grown but wayward only son gets the phone call that all parents dread: His son, Daniel (played by Emilio Estevez), has died.  Daniel, who had been studying for a doctorate in cultural anthropology had quit grad-school, calling it a waste of time and had gone out into the world to witness for himself the things that he had been studying.  Even as Tom is listening to the French gendarme calling from the foothills of the Pyrenees telling him of Daniel's death, Tom's mind flashes back to the last time he saw his son -- as he was driving him to the airport in a driving rain getting a lecture from him about how he (the father) had chosen "to never really live."  Tom packs his bag and flies to France to retrieve the body of his son.

When Tom reaches the Pyrenees a day-or-two later and identifies the body, the English-speaking gendarme Capt. Henri (played by Tcheky Karyo) who had talked to him on the phone, explains to him that Daniel had apparently just set off  to walk the Camino de Santiago de CompostelaThe Camino was a famous medieval pilgrimage route that begins in the French Pyrenees and continues to the northwestern corner of Spain at the town of Santiago de Compsostela where by tradition the body of St. James the Apostle was to be found.

Niether Tom nor Daniel had been particularly religious.  However, as a cultural anthropologist Daniel could have found the tradition of this Camino interesting.  Daniel apparently had set-off to make the journey alone, and probably against the advice of the locals, walked straight into a snow storm and died.

The genderme, who had made the Camino three times in his life, hands over to Tom Daniel's backpack and "Camino passport" which it would have been stamped at all the towns and pilgrimage sites along the route and expresses his condolences.  Daniel's passport had but one stamp, that of the town to which Tom had come to retrieve his body at the start of the journey.

Spending the night in a pension with Daniel's backpack and all-but-empty passport, Tom comes back to the gendermarie (police station) the next day, asks that Daniel's body be cremated, calls his secretary back in Ventura, CA telling her to simply move his appointments to another doctor for the next several months and decides to make the pilgrimage for his son himself.   Touched, the genderme arranges what needs to be arranged.  A few days later with Daniel's backpack and box of ashes, Tom sets off on his journey receiving the blessing of Capt. Henri wishing him a "buen camino."  And an adventure of a lifetime ensues.

Not more than a couple of hours after leaving the French town, Tom comes across a fresh wooden cross made along the way and realizes that this was probably where his son had died.  In perhaps the most controversial aspect of the film (from a Catholic perspective) Tom decides to leave some of his son's ashes there (and decided from then on to some of Daniel's ashes scattered at various places along the route.  One gets what Tom does, and certainly many Americans today would do the same.  Still Tom could have had Daniel buried in the French town where he had died, and then simply prayed or left another token (perhaps a photo, perhaps something sles) at each of the sites instead.

Still, throughout the journey, Tom repeatedly encounters glimpses of Daniel walking the route with him and smiling.  If the two had never really reconciled in life, at least in death, they were walking together (and Daniel was able to show his father a little of what he, in fact, had enjoyed so much).

Along the way, Tom meets other people.  After all, this remains a very popular hiking/pilgrimage route to this day.  None of the three fellow-travelers that he meets in particular -- the seemingly happy-go-lucky pot smoking epicurianist Dutchman Joost (played by Yorick van Wageningen), the middle-aged angry big-chip-on-her-shoulder carrying Canadian Sarah (played by Deborah Kara Unger) and the somewhat crazy Irish travel-log writing one-time James Joyce wannabee Jack (played by James Nesbitt) -- appears to be making the trek for particularly religious reasons.  Yet, Jack (the travel-log writing/reading Irishman) declares that as far as he has read about the Camino de Santiago de Compostela truly everyone on this journey absolutely belongs there.  And yes, walking together, they repeatedly get on each other's nerves ;-).  Yet each offers the others much in their journey as well.  Thanks to the Dutchman (on the journey actually to lose weight) they eat very, very well.  Thanks to the Irishman they learn a lot of the history.  And thanks to the American and the Canadian, they learn that there's both a lot of brokenness in this world, and a lot of healing that can take place on a journey like this.

I thank Emilio Estevez and the Sheen family in general for making a movie like this.  It took some courage.  Again, it's not entirely orthodox.  But I already remember in the late 1980s and early 1990s when I was studying down in Southern California that Martin Sheen in particular had been brave in proclaiming, defending and above all living his Catholicism in a milieu where this certainly has not been not easy.

This film gives America's Catholics much to reflect on and much to be proud of and certainly offers grown children and their parents everywhere an opportunity to talk about things that really matter.  Great, great  job!

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