A look at the work of many contemporary Spanish filmmakers might lead one to think this is an unapologetically promiscuous race. The films of Pedro Almodovar hardly need much introduction in this regard. His work, as well as lesser known but highly popular films of recent years, among them Sex and Lucia (2002), My Name is Juani (2006) and Sex, Party and Lies (2009), portrays a modern day Spain characterised by nothing if not openness, behaviour light years away from the stodgy, conservative society of the Franco decades.
Artists who commenced their careers under the heavy constraints of the dictatorship, for example Carlos Saura, needed to proceed allusively to have their films made and granted distribution in the state dominated system. Saura succeeded brilliantly in veiling stringent criticism of the ruling junta and oppressive Catholic dogma though he could never have depicted characters as bold and upfront in embracing their sexuality as those who would begin appearing on screen a few short years later.
The Way, Emilio Estevez’s 2010 film, could be held up as evidence in support of any hypothesis positing the idea that Spain for all its ‘Godless modernism’ remains a profoundly Catholic bastion. Estevez’s film takes as its setting, in all but a handful of scenes, the legendary Way of St. James, aka the Camino de Santiago, a trek of approximately 800 kilometres. The starting point for most who embark on the camino is the town of St. Jean in the French Pyrenees. From there it is a relatively short distance to the Spanish frontier. Pilgrims then proceed through several provinces in north-west Spain until they reach Santiago de Compostela. For Catholics it is the third most sacred place in the world, behind Jerusalem and Rome.
A sixty something ophthalmologist in California, Tom Avery (Martin Sheen) is devastated to learn of the death of his son Daniel (played by Estevez) in a freak storm in the Pyrenees in the earliest stages of his own camino. Brief flashbacks reveal that this father / son relationship was not the smoothest of unions. The son has sought inspiration and adventure in his life, an existence far from the safe, humdrum mode that has been the lot of his doctor father.
Tom travels to St. Jean intending to bring the body of Daniel back to the United States. But on learning something about the walk his son had set as his latest life goal, he has a change of heart. He decides to have the body cremated and to undertake the journey in Daniel’s honour, sprinkling the ashes at various points along the way. But if the doctor has hoped for a peaceable, go it alone walk, he is quickly and rudely awakened. That is not what the Camino de Santiago is about.
Refugios and albuerges dotted along the route provide pilgrims with beds and food. But these are rudimentary at best and, against his better judgement, Tom is compelled to share dormitory space and meals with a motley assortment of fellow wayfarers. He also finds himself sharing the actual walk experience with others. Though he endeavours to shake them all at one time or another, Tom becomes one of a foursome including Joost, Sarah and Jack, from the Netherlands, Canada and Ireland respectively.
The two Europeans and the Canadian have personal, somewhat prosaic reasons for taking on the challenge of the walk or goals they wish to tie in with it. Each in turn openly wonders about Tom’s habit of stopping here and there to sprinkle ashes. The painfully, and carefully, guarded truth eventually outs. To Tom’s surprise or not, the others can understand his heartache given they are bearing considerable personal pain of their own.
Well into the journey, the garrulous Irish writer Jack, a man who has lost his way with the written word but is suffering no such problem with the spoken, rubs Tom up the wrong way with his constant stream of blarney. The result is a drunken tirade on the American’s part. The boot switches to the other foot quickly enough, however, when Jack (who Tom has decried as a fraud) uses one of his credit cards to bail Tom out of the local lockup.
Tom is less adamant about proceeding solo from this point. Indeed, he soon requires help again. This time in Burgos, when a gypsy boy steals his pack, filled with all his things including what remains of Daniel’s ashes. The thief’s infuriated father forces the lad to return the stolen property and in a further act of repentance invites the travellers to a fiesta that night. The wise elder advises Tom to continue his walk beyond Santiago de Compostela to the Galician coast. It is in the rampant sea there that he ought to dispose of the rest of his son’s ashes, he is told.
One of the travellers’ last stops is León. Here, Tom treats everyone to a night in a luxurious five-star hotel. But all four are hardly in the mood for such indulgence. They repair instead to Tom’s room and there enjoy more of the hard-won community that has bound them now for many days. When finally they reach their heralded goal they are moved beyond words at the blessing and mass in the celebrated cathedral. These are beautiful sequences that could not fail to touch anyone who has ever known faith, irrespective of the object of that faith.
The previously embittered Sarah has come to understand that her walk was never about quitting smoking, as she had maintained. Joost knows that his was not about losing weight, as he had said. Even Jack is shaken to the core, as much at the Galician coast as at Santiago de Compostela. His writer’s block has subsided through the journey (the at first reluctant Tom has given him carte blanche to write about his and their experience), but beholding the wonder of the raging sea it becomes clear to him that in certain situations words are superfluous.
Jack has always aspired to be a novelist but settled for second best, the much safer route of life as a travel writer. ‘It’s the life I choose,’ he tells Tom. He may have someway to go yet, we think. Tom has said much the same to Daniel about his own life in one of the flashback scenes. ‘You don’t choose a life. You live one,’ is Daniel’s trenchant response to his father.
Many who walk the Way of St. James may be unsure of their rationale and hedge when asked to sum it up in a few words. Such is the question posed to all when presented their completion certificates. Of the foursome Tom comes closest to nailing his real reason when he asserts, after a moment’s prevarication, that he had been beset with a need to travel more.
The veteran Martin Sheen is outstanding in the main role, a ride that takes him from the most individualist and staid of participants to that of a man far more understanding of the ‘ways’ of others, especially that of his deceased son. He can understand it because he has begun living it. Yorick Van Wangeningen, Deborah Kara Unger and James Nesbitt ably portray characters easy to relate to in their own right, struggling individuals who also act as foils to the American and subtle prods to his slow awakening.