Some films have those ‘one-liners’ in the script that aren’t lived up to by the rest of the film’s contents; ‘The Way’ is certainly not one of those films. “You don’t choose a life. You live one” is the quote on the film’s poster and said in the film early on by the character Daniel – played by the film’s Director Emilio Estevez – son of Martin Sheen in the film and in real life. (Martin Sheen’s real name is Ramon Estevez – he is half Spanish, half Irish, with an American accent). Sheen plays Tom, an eye doctor in California, but is called to walk The Camino de Santiago (The Way of Saint James) after some tragic news.
The film starts out as Tom’s painful journey but quickly becomes the journey of all who join him – including those in the cinema audience – their pain, their search for themselves, their frustration with each other. Tom’s 800 kilometre walk to reach the cathedral is also the walk of many other pilgrims – some who join and stay with him – much to his annoyance at first. There is the overweight, excitable and ever supportive Dutchman Joost, the depressed, sensitive and empathetic Canadian Sarah (who herself has a tragic story which she realises is not so far away from Tom’s) and the very talkative, seemingly scatty (he is far from scatty) Irishman Jack who has writer’s block (James Nesbitt). And I think ‘seemingly’ is an important word here – all the characters are quite private (apart from maybe Joost the Dutchman who appears uncomplicated) about why they are on the pilgrimage – they discover bit by bit about each other and in turn learn why they themselves might be there. What binds them is their kindness to each other and the fellowship they share – often unknowingly.
The journey they end up doing together is none other than inspirational and very moving. Accompanied by an amazing soundtrack featuring Coldplay, David Gray, James Taylor and Alanis Morissette it quickly makes you feel lucky to be alive because of the unusual sense of ‘realness’ the film creates. These four travellers (I call them seekers) are not on the surface religious and don’t talk about God very much but visibly display enough sense of inward emotional struggle with themselves and their purpose in life to make the viewer feel that they are everyman. Most of all the unbreakable chain of friendship that grows between them is hugely moving. Tom pushes them away as he struggles with his pain and self-blame but they never desert him. They stand by him, often coming to his rescue. By the end, the introvert Tom tells Jack (Nesbitt) to write his book truthfully – tell it as it is – something Tom would never have said at the beginning.
The film is a fable of journeys lost and found, of fractured lives being rebuilt and of understanding that although we are all unique people, we share the same tears, fears and need for a listening, non-judgemental ear. At one point, Jack the Irishman says to Tom that he (Jack) needs to get back to the real world – Tom’s reply indicates that he himself is now questioning why this journey is not the real world or at least why it cannot be part of the real world? Just because it has been labelled a ‘religious’ journey – it has been no less a journey, and we each make those every day of our lives. You get the feeling that after they have reached the goal – the awesome Cathedral at Santiago – they go their own separate ways. It seems a shame, but reinforces another of the film’s messages that it is the fleeting experiences in life that often mean the most – the challenge is to take the feelings created by them and the people that helped you and lived with you during those fleeting moments, into the rest of life.
You feel that whatever the pilgrims were searching for, they found it – just look at the expressions on their faces once at the Cathedral (particularly Nesbitt’s). If they thought they were searching for nothing, they were given something unexpected. An Oscar winning actress recently said that the arts are where people go to when they need their broken hearts mended – this film is an example both in its art form that does this and in its subject matter. Whether or not you believe in God, I’d urge you to see the film – it is a tapestry of honest human experience and preaches nothing other than making the most of what you have, who you have around you and to laugh with them (the film made me laugh and cry in equal measure). Another of the people Tom meets along his journey says that what he is participating in is nothing to do with religion, but something beyond. By the end of the film, you understand what this is.