November 16, 2011
The Way, a new movie written and directed by Emilio Estevez, starring his father Martin Sheen, had me from the moment the main character arrives in St. Jean Pied de Port, France, to identify the body of his son who has died in an accident while traveling. It’s a sad set-up, to be sure. But what really got me was the Pyrenees Mountains scenery around the town where pilgrims begin the 500-mile walk to the shrine of St. James in Santiago de Campostela, Spain, resting place of the apostle’s remains, discovered after he was martyred in Jerusalem in 44 A.D.
For people who have dreamed about walking the Camino, the film is the next best thing, not only because of its glorious Pyrenees and Spanish Basque country setting, but because it dramatizes the emotional and spiritual journey pilgrims inevitably take, regardless of religious affiliation. Sheen plays an irascible, lapsed-Catholic ophthalmologist from Southern California. Others join him on the journey, each with his own mission. Together they follow the route, getting their official Camino passports stamped in hostels where they stop as they gradually discover truer, deeper reasons for walking the pilgrim’s path.
In real life Sheen, well known for playing President Jed Bartlet on the TV series “The West Wing,” is a devout Catholic and the father of four children, all of them actors. Emilio, his oldest, got the idea of making the film on a family car trip in 2005 roughly paralleling the Camino. He wrote the lead role for his father and based the story partly on a book by Jack Hitt, Off the Road: A Modern-Day Walk Down the Pilgrim’s Route into Spain.
I won’t give away what happens along The Way, except to say that one of the things Sheen’s character learns is why his son loved to travel, and that every trip taken with an open heart can be a pilgrimage.