Tom and his adult son Daniel (played by real life father and son Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez) have never really been close. As a dutiful breadwinner, Tom has been kept busy with his ophthalmology practice, only taking a little time off for golf. Daniel meanwhile has dropped out of his graduate studies to travel the world because, in his opinion, a true anthropologist should experience culture.
Lines of communication are further challenged by Daniel’s decision not to carry a cell phone, making Tom dependent for news on his son’s whim and/or proximity to a pay phone. But when a call finally does come it is not Daniel on the other end of the line. Instead it is the Captain of Police from a small town in France (Tchéky Karyo) explaining Daniel has been killed in a terrible storm in the Pyrenees Mountains. He requests Tom come to make a positive identification and collect the body.
The grieving dad arrives in the town of St. Jean Pied de Port still wondering what his son was doing there in the first place. The kindly Captain explains the village is frequently a starting point for the Camino de Santiago (The Way of Saint James). Attracting people from all over the world, this 500-mile (800 km) trek across France and Spain ends at the Cathedral de Santiago, believed to house the remains of the apostle St. James. Pilgrims have traveled it for more than a thousand years, although their motivations have changed over time. Tom can’t imagine why his son would begin such a journey, yet in his desire to find some sort of connection to his lost child he makes the impulsive decision to walk the Camino for both of them, sprinkling Daniel’s ashes along the way.
If Tom was expecting some quiet meditative moments, his hopes are soon dashed. The popular path across the mountaintops is crowded with hikers that look a lot like tourists, adventurous students, leftover hippies and athletic types. Few of these modern-day pilgrims show any reverence for the religious significance of the path they are following. Rather they seem to be enjoying the sort of communal living that goes with perpetual camping (one shamelessly stands in his skimpy underwear while laundering all his other clothes). And at the end of the day, they wash away the dust with ample helpings of alcohol.
Because of the spacing of nightly accommodations, Tom keeps bumping into many of the same people, some of whom prove to be extremely difficult to get away from. Joost (Yorick van Wageningen) for instance, is a gregarious Dutchman looking to shed a few pounds. He befriends the offish Tom by offering advice on the best food in the region, as well as illegal pills to improve sleeping on the trail and smokes rolled with more than tobacco to ease the tedium of the walk. Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger) joins the party despite her obvious dislike of men. The embittered Canadian claims her quest is to give up her cigarettes at the feet of St. James. (That may be the reason the chain smoker doesn’t appear to be in much of a hurry to reach the Cathedral.) The last cling-on is Jack from Ireland (James Nesbitt) who is suffering from writer’s block and sharing his misery by talking incessantly about the deep philosophical meanings of the most trivial things.
If the viewer is expecting a quiet meditative movie full of enlightening flashbacks and a metaphysical scene of reconciliation between father and son, this film may be a disappointment. Although Tom occasionally thinks he catches glimpses of Daniel along the path, this script stays in the realm of reality. Daniel is gone and all Tom has to help him put his loss into perspective is the long road and three imperfect strangers also seeking answers to questions they can’t put a voice to.
Perhaps it is this realism that makes The Way so powerful. While you get to know many personal things about each character, there are many facets to their flawed lives that remain a mystery. Though you begin to see some of the reasons each have made the journey, there are undoubtedly more you still don’t understand. And even the sense they have found some answers, comes without quite knowing what they are or when they were revealed.
Amazingly, the process of observing this eclectic group ponderously plodding through the beautiful European landscape has the ability to make the audience undergo a similar experience. Even if it is only vicarious, expect to feel like you have been walking for months, thinking about the bigger issues of life and sensing some greater spiritual meaning. The promise of traveling this ancient road seems to be an opportunity to contemplate your own course. And those who are willing to embark on this journey are wished, “Buen Camino.”
Release Date: 7 October 2011 (Limited)