The Way (2011)

For a brief moment a few years back there was a lot of hubbub about the Emilio Estevez film The Way (2011, PG-13), which Emilio both directed and starred in along with his father, Martin Sheen, who played the leading role. Then the film kind of faded from the public eye for awhile and I almost forgot about it until I found it in one of those $5.00 DVD bins at Wal-Mart and decided to check it out. I'm still not sure if I got a good deal on it or not.

When Dr. Thomas Avery, a wealthy ophthalmologist, hears the news that his estranged son has been killed in Pyrenees, he makes the journey to France to recover the body of his son. Upon arriving in France, he learns that his son Daniel had been on a pilgrimage along the Camino, the ancient pilgrimage route leading from the Pyrenees along the Atlantic coast to the Shrine of Santiago de Compostella in Spain, a distance of some 500 miles. After learning a little bit about the Camilo, Dr. Avery decides to finish the pilgrimage himself, with his son's cremated remains kept lovingly in a box carried on his backpack. Along the way Dr. Avery meets a variety of companions, each seeking something different from the journey. The pilgrimage becomes a journey of healing as Dr. Avery comes to terms with his son's death and learns to have empathy towards hurts and weaknesses of other people.

Emilio Estevez went to great lengths to market this movie to the Catholic demographic, even traveling around the country in a bus and doing exclusive screenings to specially chosen diocesan committees. One of my friends on the Diocese of Lansing Catholic Schools Board got invited to one of these "exclusive" screenings and got to chat with Emilio and Martin in person about the film, which was pretty cool. The establishment, however, wanted nothing to do with the film, and Emilio's vigorous self-promotion was largely wrapped up with the fact that no Hollywood distribution company would touch it. I found this odd, since as we shall see, the movie lacked any clear Catholic message. It was religious, but only in a vague sort of way.

But let's look at the good parts first.

If nothing else, this movie is valuable as a tool for teaching people about the Camino, the Shrine of Santiago, and the beautiful cinematography of the Pyrenean and Spanish countryside. Had the film not been set in such a beautiful location, it is unlikely that a two hour movie about a senior citizen walking would be even remotely interesting. So getting to see rural France and Spain is a plus.

The main character, Dr. Tom Avery, undergoes a transformation throughout the film. At the beginning he is thoroughly worldly, caring primarily about wealth and the next round of golf. This gives rise to a charming little paradox:an ophthalmologist who works on people's eyes but himself is blind to some very evident truths about life who has to have his spiritual eyes opened by letting go of the things he thought he knew. There is a sense of progressive revelation about the film, pointing to the pilgrimage nature of our whole existence. We are all pilgrims in this life.

The Catholic Church is portrayed in an unambiguously positive light, which is refreshing. The local police lieutenant in the French town where Dr. Avery begins his journey is a devoted Catholic, and Dr. Avery meets a priest struggling with a brain tumor who gives us a catechesis on suffering in microcosm. The scenes of the group's arrival at Compostella and the footage of the Shrine are moving. There is also an unexpected Pro-Life message tucked in one of the subplots.

Unfortunately, those few very broad points are the only real positives one can draw out of the film, and they are regrettably offset by many negatives. Let's examine why this movie, though giving it a noble try, ultimately fails to move the heart sufficiently or convince the mind that it is a truly Catholic film.

We will look at many difficulties with this movie, but they can all be summed up by saying that the movie takes a fundamentally secular approach to life; even its spirituality is secular. Allow me to explain:

First, Dr. Avery's son Daniel, who dies on the pilgrimage route, reveals in a flashback that he is not going on the pilgrimage for any spiritual motive. He never really reveals a specific motive except a vague desire to see the world, and when trying to explain this, all he can do is cite the work of cultural anthropologists who have to live among the tribes that they study in order to understand them. Thus, we are left with the notion that Daniel was on the pilgrimage to better understand his fellow man, absorb local culture, learn more about the world - but any spiritual motive is completely lacking.

Daniel, of course, dies, and Dr. Avery will bring his ashes along with him on journey. This leads into perhaps the biggest annoyance with the movie: despite being marked as a Catholic film, the protagonist Dr. Avery is depicted as very clearly violating Church discipline by choosing to spread his son Daniel's ashes along the whole 500 mile trek of the Camino, eventually dumping the rest of them out on a muddy rock by the sea on the coast of Spain. Obviously the spreading of ashes in such a manner is forbidden by the Church, and I am assured by reliable witnesses that Emilio and Martin got their asses ripped for this when they showed this movie at all those diocesan screenings. Martin Sheen tried to deflect criticism about this point by suggesting that though the main character Dr. Avery is a Catholic, he is not a well-formed Catholic, and his intuitions and actions are those of a very nominally practicing Catholic who is ignorant of Church practice. Well and good. Except for the fact that by the end of the film, Dr. Avery had not changed in this respect whatsoever; indeed, the dumping of the ashes on the muddy rock at the end of the movie after Dr. Avery's supposed transformational pilgrimage is that much more unacceptable.

Why not create a character arc where Dr. Avery begins as a lukewarm Catholic but by the end of the film has learned more about his faith? There is a great scene where Dr. Avery lays the ashes of his son Daniel before the reliquary containing the bones of St. James. It would have been great had he walked out of the cathedral and left the ashes before St. James. They had the shot all set up. Instead, we see him take them to the sea and dump them on a muddy rock with no more ceremony than Walter spreading Danny's ashes in The Big Lebowksi. If Dr. Avery was an uneducated Catholic, as Sheen suggests, then by the end of the film he ought not to have been so.

This is just indicative of a bigger problem: Dr. Avery experiences no real conversion in the film. Now, I am not suggesting that every good Catholic movie needs to result in an express conversion to Jesus Christ ala Facing the Giants and Fireproof. My critique is not that Dr. Avery does not openly confess Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior; it's that he doesn't really change at all throughout the entire movie, despite the fact that the film is about pilgrimage. He begins the film as an abrasive jerk, and he pretty much remains that way throughout most of the movie, even long beyond we feel his character should have matured. There is some bit of lightening up at the very, very end, but they basically have to get to Compostella before we see this. Even then there is no indication that Dr. Avery has had any sort of spiritual conversion, or that his son's death has led him to think about God in any way. At the very end of the film, we see Dr. Avery again on a new pilgrimage, apparently somewhere in Africa, walking to an unknown destination. Apparently the Camino experience has led him not to turn his life over to God, but to become a habitual walker all around the globe. The message is confused; clearly Dr. Avery has changed his life, but in what sort of way? Does he now believe pilgrimage is an end in itself regardless of destination? I don't know, and the movie doesn't help us decide.

Neither are any of the other characters in the film on the pilgrimage for religious reasons. One character, a Dutchman named Yost, is walking to lose weight because he is so fat his wife won't have sex with him. Nice. Then there is extremely irritating Canadian woman who is walking to escape from a bad choice in her past; an Irishman named Jack is on the Camino to get over a bad case of writer's block. If we want to be questionable about the main character's motives, fine, but at least someone in this movie about a pilgrimage to a Catholic shrine ought to be doing for some motive that is remotely spiritual: penance for sin, deepening ones relationship with God, discerning a vocation, praying for a miracle...unfortunately this is entirely lacking. The closest we get is the priest with the brain tumor, and he is in the movie for about one minute. So don't look for any expressions of a distinctly Catholic spirituality. At all.

There is also a lot of drug use in the film, surprisingly. I think they were trying to play with the stereotype of the drug-using European. The Dutchman Yost constantly smokes marijuana and carries around various other kinds of drugs which he distributes liberally, and all the other lesser protagonists, except Dr. Avery, use them without scruple.

Now, this is an interesting question. Dr. Avery begins by being super up tight and rigid, and this is contrasted with the easy going Europeans, who are very laid back and use drugs liberally. So the chill Europeans are contrasted with the anal, uptight American. Fine. But, if Dr. Avery is supposed to be all uptight, and we are suppose to disapprove of his behavior, are we to then infer that he ought to loosen up and...do some drugs, like his European counterparts whose attitudes are portrayed as much more friendly? The message is confusing.

It could have been done better this way: when Dr. Avery first gets to Europe, he is so devastated that he is tempted to use drugs to help alleviate his pain, but as the film progresses, he develops spiritually and learns to turn to God to cope with his grief and rejects drug use as an opiate; this conversion then inspires his European compatriots, who in turn give up the drugs. But instead we see Dr. Avery's bad attitude contrasted with the cheery Europeans who, as part of their cheeriness, use recreational drugs throughout the film, and who by contrast to Dr. Avery's irritability, are thereby portrayed as positive role models.

Perhaps part of the problem here is that this religiously marketed movie does not come across as religious because Emilio Estevez himself, who wrote and directed the film, is not religious. In the special features, he talks about how he is not a particularly religious person and there is footage of him whining when his father asks him to pray the Rosary. Emilio also stated publicly at the screenings my friend went to that he was not a believer in the strict sense.

Emilio also said that he wanted to make a movie that appealed to everybody, not just Catholics. If so, that's very odd that he decided to omit so much Catholic imagery after the mainstream distributors and producers refused to touch it; I mean, at that point, what do you have to lose? It also is odd given the fact that he intentionally marketed the film to Catholics. Oh well; I'm not going to think too hard about it.

But why make a film about the Camino at all if one wants to leave out Catholic imagery? Apparently, Emilio's brother (Ramon, not Charlie) went to Europe to walk the Camino and met his future wife there, which got the family interested in the Camino and the Shrine of Compostella. The story about the father carrying his dead son's ashes is a compilation of various stories the brother Ramon heard about while he himself was on the Camino.

The film was not terrible. It just could have been better in so many ways - including more Catholic spirituality would have been entirely appropriate, and demonstrating more of a distinguishable development in the main character would be most important, but also doing away with that horrible spreading the ashes thing as well as the positive depictions of recreational drug use. That being said, it was still an enjoyable movie, and might be worth watching on a rainy afternoon.

Two tiaras.