The Way of Saint James — or, as it is called by the locals, El Camino de Santiago — is a roughly 800-km pilgrimage walk through northern Spain to the city of Santiago de Compostela where, according to pious legend, lie the remains of St. James the Apostle. Pious legend is almost certainly faulty on this point, but nonetheless the Camino has been an important Catholic pilgrimage route for over 1000 years. I myself walked a portion of it — roughly the last 15% — in 2005, and I hope one day to return to walk the entire thing.
In this 2010 film, Martin Sheen plays Tom Avery, an American doctor called to a small town in the Pyrenees to identify the body of his son, Daniel (played by Sheen’s real-life son, Emilio Estevez, who also wrote and directed the film). Daniel had been killed in a sudden storm on (what must have been) the first day of his Camino trek. Tom has never heard of the Camino before, and suspects the walk of being another of his unfocused son’s fruitless enthusiasms, but once finding himself there he decides to walk the Camino himself, scattering his son’s ashes along the route, as a way of honouring his final wishes. Along the way he encounters a number of other pilgrims, has a variety of adventures, and eventually does find his way to the magnificent portals of the Cathedral of St. James in Santiago.
The Camino is busy, and these days one finds it full of people with every kind of intention. There are those who are on religious pilgrimage, of course, and in some sense they have pride of place, for they carry on the tradition that is the Camino’s raison d’etre. It is for them that the shrines, churches, prayers, and devotions associated with the Camino make sense. But naturally there are others too: people of other faiths, or none, walking the route for their own reasons. This is reflected in the film: of the companions who eventually coalesce around Tom en route, one is walking to lose weight, another to quit smoking, and a third to overcome writer’s block. At first I found this slightly annoying, as though the religious purpose of the pilgrimage was being not just downplayed, but outright ignored. By film’s end, however, I was more content; it had become clear that each pilgrim had, perhaps without knowing it, deeper reasons for being there, and that the pilgrimage itself has worked its own purposes within each of them.
This is a film that I am predisposed to like. I could not view it without remembering my own sojourn on the Camino, which is among the happiest episodes of my life. Having said that, it is a good, but not an excellent, film. Some of the characters are too obviously “characters”, in the pejorative sense, and the misadventures along the route, while diverting to some degree, don’t obviously serve a unified artistic purpose. The soundtrack is at times extremely vexatious. (During the film we learn about the Codex Calixtinus, a medieval manuscript associated with the Camino, and the film would had been much improved had we heard some of the beautiful music drawn from that source. But I’d have settled for dropping Alanis Morissette.) The last act of the film, however, from the arrival in Santiago to the closing credits, is very good, and brings the emotional arc of the film to a satisfying conclusion. When it was over, I felt aglow.
The theme of pilgrimage is a rich one, ripe with possibility. A pilgrimage is, by its nature, a living metaphor for the journey of life itself, and there would seem to be no natural limit to the potential emotional and spiritual scope of a film of this sort. The Way is content to limit itself to what is, essentially if unconventionally, a domestic drama of the troubled relationship of a father and a son, paired with beautiful scenery and a rogue’s gallery of minor characters. This makes it a film of modest ambition, which is fine, and it mostly succeeds, which is good. I enjoyed it, and I recommend it.
Our friend Janet Cupo also recently watched this film, and she posted her thoughts about it earlier today. She liked it too.