The pilgrimage road from the French Pyrenees to the shrine of St. James at Santiago de Compostella in northwestern Spain is a long one, and Emilio Estevez’s film set along it, “The Way,” is a pretty long slog too. While obviously a labor of love for Estevez, who wrote, produced and directed the film (as well as taking a small but pivotal role in it), and his father Martin Sheen, who stars, and despite the magnificent scenery on the route, the slow, pious picture strives for a profundity it never achieves. And it suffers from one of the most annoying, overbearing music scores in recent memory (by Tyler Bates).
Sheen plays Tom Avery, a stolid, conservative California opthamologist who reacts with disdain when his only son Daniel (Estevez) decides to cut short his graduate studies and travel the world. Later, during a golf game Tom gets a call telling him that Daniel has been killed in an accident while beginning the walk to Compostella. He travels to France, where he decides on the spur of the moment to take up his dead son’s pilgrimage, scattering the young man’s ashes along the way, though the kindly gendarme (Tcheky Karyo) tries to dissuade him.
The trip naturally turns into a life-altering experience for Tom, who despite his natural surliness and determination to keep his mission a private affair gradually sets aside his aversion to company and finds himself part of a party of four. His eventual bosom companions are a garrulous, good-natured Dutchman, Joost (Yorick van Wageningen), who claims to be taking the journey to lose weight but still eats plentifully; a frosty Canadian, Sarah (Deborah Karen Unger), whose pledge is to stop chain-smoking at their destination; and a motor-mouthed Irishman, Jack (James Nesbitt) who’s writing a book about the pilgrimage process and, once he learns of Tom’s backstory, is anxious to include it. And he’s constantly accompanied by another figure—the spirit of his son, whom he occasionally glimpses as well.
“The Way” is necessarily episodic as the travelers stumble their way into different places and encounter a varied assortment of folks, both fellow-pilgrims and locals. Some of the sequences are very heavy-handed, such as the one in which Tom’s backpack—including the urn containing Daniel’s ashes—is stolen by a gypsy boy, whose honest father Ishmael (Antonio Gil) forces the kid to return it. Others, such as one in which the quartet consider taking a room in the house of a weird fellow who holds conversations with himself, are simply bizarre. But the most important stop is at Compostella, where all four of our pilgrims have a vaguely religious experience—though none, not even Tom, is a serious Catholic—and Estevez lets his cameraman Juan Miguel Azpiroz cut loose and show us the sights. (To be fair, the cinematography throughout is pretty spectacular—or, rather, the sites are.)
But though the film tries very hard (and, I think, sincerely) to be moving, it never manages to cut very deep, except in the early scenes in which Tom has to deal with his son’s sudden death. That’s certainly not due to Sheen, whose intensity and commitment are obvious (though the other actors tend to coast), but to Estevez’s script, which doesn’t sufficiently clarify what the pilgrims get out of the experience, other than a vague sense of spiritual well-being (and an understandably awe-struck reaction to the shrine of St. James, which the church has kept a major tourist attraction for more than a thousand years and remains mightily impressive.) And his direction is erratic, mostly lackadaisical apart from a few emotionally potent moments.
“The Way” would be perfect for the Eternal Word Network; indeed, it would raise the quality level there considerably. But while it clearly comes from the heart, it doesn’t touch it very deeply.