Life is a journey, they say; one we’re in no hurry to complete.
Granted, Christians believe that this trek of ours leads home, where our heavenly Father waits to welcome us. Some of us (at least in theory) can’t wait to see the place. And yet we grow attached to our earthly confines too—the daily toil in sun and rain, deep in the valleys and high on the hills.
Daniel’s journey ended in the Pyrenees Mountains separating France and Spain. He had just begun the pilgrimage of El Camino de Santiago—a sacred walk along the northern coast of Spain to the Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela, where the remains of St. James are reportedly kept. But his first day out, he lost his way and died, his expedition terminated before it barely began. And now Daniel’s body has just one trip left to make: back to the States in the care of Tommy, his grieving father.
But then, a detour. Tommy arrives in France and asks the police captain in Roncesvalles to cremate the body (making it easier to transport, thinks the no-nonsense father). The captain agrees to take care of it and hands Tommy Daniel’s belongings: a backpack, a walking stick, a small photo album. And as Tommy goes through the pack and leafs through the album, he grows to know his son a little better … to understand his journey.
The next day, Tommy is ready to go—not to the airport but to Santiago. He knows nothing about the road ahead and has no idea what to expect. He wears his son’s pack, carries his son’s walking stick and bears his son’s ashes on his back. Daniel dreamed of finishing El Camino (translated, literally, as “The Way”), and Tommy’s going to make sure he does.
“You don’t choose a life, Dad,” Daniel tells his pops early on, when Tommy’s about to drop him off at the airport. “You live one.”
While I don’t quite get that statement (it seems like it’s a little bit of both), I understand the sentiment: If life’s a journey, you might as well enjoy the trip. Take chances. Smell the roses. It’s all very cliché, but very true, too.
Tommy is a high-strung guy when he embarks on El Camino. While those around him insist the walk can be a life-changing experience—one that is terribly personal—Tommy sees it as more of a duty than anything else, a way to somehow connect with the son he never really understood. Along the way, we see him scatter bits of Daniel’s ashes on ledges and fence posts. It’s touching, but for a while it seems as though Tommy’s missing the point for himself. When he’s joined by a handful of fellow travelers, he’s standoffish and sometimes rude. It’s a wonder they put up with him.
But as the way unfolds before them, Tommy begins to open up. And suddenly this solitary spiritual pilgrimage becomes one of community, where joys and heartaches are shared, not stifled.
Actor Martin Sheen did a good job of summarizing some of the film’s positivity to an appreciative audience after a Denver screening of The Way:
“I think all of us are on pilgrimage whether we’re conscious of it or not. We’re trying to find our true selves. I like to phrase it as it’s an honest effort to unite the will of the spirit with the work of the flesh. That’s pilgrimage. And when we’re balanced in that regard, then we’re able to share our brokenness, our joys, every part of what it means to be human, and share it with community, with family.
“You must walk alone,” he continued. “You cannot do the pilgrimage without walking. All of us have to carry our cross, if you will. All of us have our own personal journey. … But you cannot do it without community. It’s a dichotomy. We’re never, ever, ever alone.”
Shortly after learning of his son’s death, Tommy finds himself in a church. The priest asks if he could pray for him. “What for?” Tommy responds—a man expressing perhaps the natural desolation that can come when you lose your own child.
Then, as if to answer his own question, Tommy begins his trek.
El Camino, which from Roncesvalles covers about 500 miles, has been considered a sacred journey for more than 1,000 years. While people now walk it for a variety of reasons (from New Age spiritualism to simply the adventure of it), there’s still a sense of faith that informs the film’s treatment.
Tommy meets people who make the pilgrimage for deeply spiritual reasons, including a priest. But Tommy’s closest companions aren’t nearly so religious. Joost, a friendly Dutchman, wants to lose a few pounds. Sarah, a brittle and bitter Canadian, wants to stop smoking. Irish writer Jack wants to find a fantastic story. And yet we see moments of sincere reverence and faith from each. Joost, when he enters the Santiago cathedral, does so on his knees. Sarah offers a beautiful prayer at the Cruz de Ferro (“Cross of Iron”), where pilgrims lay down stones from their homes. And Jack’s transformation is particularly striking: He refuses to go into a church throughout the journey, saying that collectively the church has “a lot to answer for.” But when he does finally step through the doors at the end, he winds up weeping, sobbing in a pew during Mass. It’s a beautiful statement, I think, that while the earthly church is far from perfect, even its transgressions cannot fully hide the beauty and perfection that was and is its reason for being.
We don’t, however, witness any clear references to the way of salvation Christ laid before all of us. Instead we hear Tommy asking God to remember his good works and factor them in when he arrives at heaven’s gate.
We see priests swing incense containers, buoyed by ropes, from one end of the Santiago cathedral to the other. The travelers pass penitents carrying crosses and flogging themselves. We see images of Jesus, Mary and Christian saints.
We eventually learn the reason why Joost wanted to lose weight: His wife stopped having sex with him because he was too fat. The pilgrims think they hear one of their hosts having sex upstairs. (He’s just talking to himself.) We see a man wearing a thong.
In a strange little scene, Tommy and Sarah struggle over Daniel’s remains—Sarah wanting to help Tommy pack them up snugly, Tommy not wanting anyone else to touch the precious box. In the scuffle, Sarah punches Tommy in the face. Later, she explains that the way he grabbed her made her flash back to how her husband used to beat her. And then she makes another painful confession: She aborted her baby because she didn’t want her husband to have another person to brutalize.
“I got rid of my baby girl, Tom,” she says, still traumatized. “Sometimes I hear her voice, my baby.”
Drunk, Tommy struggles with policemen.
Two or three each of “a‑‑,” “b‑‑ch,” “d‑‑n,” “p‑‑‑” and “bloody.” A half dozen or so uses of “h‑‑‑.” God’s name is misused a couple of times, as is Jesus’.
Wine is a regular accoutrement at mealtime, and the travelers duck into a pub. Tommy gets drunk during a lunch, insulting his fellow travelers and eventually getting thrown into a Spanish jail for disturbing the peace. When he treats everyone to a stay at a palatial hotel, the travelers congregate in his room, toting in wine and other alcoholic beverages.
Joost, coming from the Netherlands, is considered by some to be a walking pharmacy. “Got any drugs?” is the first question Sarah asks him when they meet. And, as it turns out, he does—at the very least sleeping pills and other pharmaceuticals, and most likely marijuana too. We see Joost and other pilgrims smoking suspicious-looking “cigarettes.”
Joost examines himself in a mirror with his bathrobe open. (The camera steadies its gaze above the waist.) There are two scenes involving the hikers (men and women) urinating outside. There’s talk of going “No. 2,” and Jack is handed a roll of toilet paper to use in a backyard.
A boy steals Tommy’s backpack. (The boy’s father later forces the lad to give it back.) We hear about discriminatory attitudes toward Gypsies.
Director Emilio Estevez characterizes The Way as a reimagining of The Wizard of Oz, complete with the Scarecrow (Jack), the Tin Man (Sarah) and the Cowardly Lion (Joost)—with Estevez’s father, Martin Sheen, playing the role of Dorothy. And maybe that’s apt. Because just as in the century-old L. Frank Baum tale, The Way ends with the characters realizing that they were just dandy all along.
When they reach the coast, Sarah lights a cigarette. Joost says that he needed a bigger suit anyway.
“This movie celebrates the very best of us,” Estevez told us at the end of the screening. “It celebrates our humanity. And at the end of the journey, they’re standing there on those rocks, they get to the place where they say, ‘I’m OK with exactly who I am. I don’t have to be thinner, I don’t have to be richer, I don’t have to stop smoking. I’m OK in my imperfection.'”
Estevez admits that his own faith is a “work in progress,” and as such, this cinematic conclusion seems to fit its director. And its open-handed treatment of its characters alludes to God’s own acceptance and grace in the face of our ingloriousness.
God calls us to be better people too, though. To not be satisfied with who we are. To strive for godly perfection and holiness. To become the moldable vessels of clay God knows we can be. It’s one thing to not beat yourself up over your flaws. It’s another to accept them and call them good. Sarah’s and Joost’s sins are superficial, but I think the analogy still holds.
The Way has other problems too: the drugs, the language.
But I still left the film wanting to take a long walk. A walk away from computers and cellphones and the workaday world. A walk to find what Celtic Christians called the thin places … places in which God’s presence is more deeply felt. A pilgrimage to … it didn’t much matter where, as long as it brought me closer to God.
The Way eloquently describes the wonder, the majesty and the beauty of faith, pockmarked as it is by our own predilections, desires and self-centeredness. It reminds me that this journey of ours is a hard but worthwhile thing, where the rewards aren’t just found at the end, but in every painful step.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.