Martin Sheen's faith vehicle

October 7, 2011

 

When I walked into a
screening of The Way, which opens today, I knew very little about the film; only that it
stars Martin Sheen and is directed by his son, Emilio Estevez, and that it
involves pilgrims hiking El Camino de Santiago, a
450-mile historical pilgrimage route across northern Spain.

I had three expectations: to
enjoy the beautiful and rugged scenery of northern Spain, to laugh at episodes of
comraderie and humor among hikers traveling together, and to tolerate
a familiar spirituality-light theme--an emotionally compromised and overworked or
crisis-laden westerner finds
friendship and inspiration in the challenge of a "spiritual" adventure.  

Well, I was right about the
first two. The scenery is stunning, with views of the  French Pyrenees and the villages and plains of northern
Spain. The shots make pilgrimage looks inviting.  The comraderie brings good moments,  some of them laugh-outloud. I liked the
congenial reverse stereotyping of American hikers by their European comrades.

Friendships develop over time
and in spite of Tom, the main character played by Sheen. Tom is a competent,
responsible and stubborn opthamologist in his 60s. His 40-year-old son Daniel, played by Estefan,  has resisted all of Tom's attempts at
shaping him into a responsible and successful professional. Instead, Daniel
disappoints his dad once again by dropping out of a PhD program to hike the
Santiago trail.

When Daniel is killed, Tom flies to
southern France to retrieve the body and decides on impulse to take Daniel's
hiking equipment and walk the trail himself, scattering his son's ashes along the way. As his
grief settles in, he begins to see his son along the trail. Soon Daniel is a
familiar ghost pilgrim, popping up along the trail or at a meal--a little too
often once the point is made.

Tom travels with Joost (Yorick Van
Wageningen), a boisterous Dutchman; Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger), a cynical 40-something Canadian; and Jack (James Nesbitt), a garrulous and sometimes annoying
Irish writer. Tom tries to ignore all of
them in his manic determination to walk off his grief, and Sheen gives the role
a deep intensity that makes his moments of humor or anger or kindness stunning
intrusions into the background of perpetual walking. When his comrades (and the
fact of 450 miles together) begin to wear away Tom's crusty defenses, we
understand that he's emerging from dark, private sorrows.

That takes us to my third
expectation: the spirtuality-light component. Let's just say that I'm the last
to learn that Martin Sheen is not a spirituality-light guy but a committed Catholic who felt compelled to make this film. The film began to wear thin for me when
it insisted on being a vehicle for Catholicism.

Catholic
piety is inserted like the ghost of Tom's son--mechanically and without
imagination. There are several examples, but by far the most problematic for this viewer
was the casting of Sarah as a woman who is deeply tormented
because she's chosen to have an abortion. It felt as if her character exists just to make this point. At the screening, Sheen commented that the filmmakers felt they "had to make a statement."

Another
viewer asked why Tom scatters his son's ashes, a practice that's against Catholic teaching. Sheen seemed ready for
the question. He said that Tom was a nonpracticing Catholic who would follow
the cultural trend in scattering a loved one's ashes. But I believe he added
that he hadn't been aware of the guidelines. In any case, the motif of the box of ashes is a central thread of the
film and would be hard to leave out.

I highly respect both Sheen's
political activism and his faith, but I would have liked to see a few of his political views seep into this film. A few conversations might have
added some depth and complexity to The Way. Instead Catholicism is on
display as unimaginatively and obviously as the North Face jackets in the
film. It's religious piety married with Hollywood.