The Way of St. James, is commonly known by its name in Spanish: El Camino de Santiago. The name comes from any of the pilgrimage routes to the shrine of the apostle St. James the Great in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, northwestern Spain. Tradition has it that the remains of the saint are buried in the cathedral. Many take up this route as a form of life pathway or retreat, for spiritual growth.
The earliest records of visits to the shrine dedicated to St. James date from the 9th century, in the time of the Kingdom of Asturias. The pilgrimage to the shrine became the most renowned medieval pilgrimage, and it became customary for those who returned from Compostela to carry back with them a Galician scallop shell as proof of their completion of the journey.
The scallop shell, often found on the shores in Galicia, has long been the symbol of the Camino de Santiago. Over the centuries the scallop shell has taken on mythical, metaphorical and practical meanings, even if its relevance may actually derive from the desire of pilgrims to take home a souvenir.
THE WAY film is a powerful and inspirational story about family, friends and the challenges we face while navigating this ever-changing and complicated world. Martin Sheen plays Tom, an irascible American doctor who comes to France to deal with the tragic loss of his son Daniel (played by Emilio Estevez). Rather than return home, Tom decides to embark on the historical pilgrimage “The Way of St. James” to honor his son’s desire to finish the journey. What Tom doesn’t plan on is the profound impact this trip will have on him. Through unexpected and oftentimes amusing experiences along “The Way,” Tom discovers the difference between “the life we live and the life we choose.”
Upon learning of his son’s tragic death, Tom flies to France to identify the body, oversees its cremation and decides on the spot to scatter the ashes along “The Way” through Spain that Daniel had planned to trek. In a nice, and convenient touch, he even uses Daniel’s backpack and hiking gear.
Inexperienced as a trekker, Tom soon discovers that he will not be alone on this journey. On “The Way,” Tom meets other pilgrims from around the world, each with their own issues and looking for greater meaning in their lives: a Dutchman name Joost (Yorick van Wageningen), a Canadian named Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger) and an Irish writer named Jack (James Nesbitt), who is suffering from a bout of writer’s block. Aside from the main actors, those seen on-screen are real pilgrims from all over the world.
From the unexpected and, oftentimes, amusing experiences along “The Way,” this unlikely quartet of misfits creates an everlasting bond and Tom begins to learn what it means to be a citizen of the world again. He also starts to unravel the totally unresolved relationship with his dead son.
In addition to his acting credit, Emilio Estevez wrote, produced and directed “The Way.” He was inspired by his son, cast his father as the star, and dedicated the film to his grandfather. It’s a sweet and sincere story of pilgrimage that can at times be uplifting, like in the scene with the gypsy father who helps Tom recover his stolen backpack.
The sometimes surly band of pilgrims are traversing beautiful and historic country, and along the way they encounter colorful locals and other fellow hikers, have some small adventures and inevitably nearly lose the container of ashes. At the end, Tom has mellowed completely, arrived at some sort of reconciliation with his son, and forgiven him for having undertaken the fool pilgrimage in the first place.
The film does make a nice travelogue as Tom walks “The Way” and takes in the scenery. If you’re looking for fast-paced action, you won’t find it here, as “The Way” is just like actual trekking. It’s slow, sometimes plodding, but it helps you understand the essence of European long distance thru-hiking.
It isn’t tents and mice-infested shelters. Unlike thru-trails in America like the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail, El Camino de Santiago passes through village after village. So the vino flows freely and the tables are full of nourishment like fresh fruit and vegetables, or a lamb from the countryside. The pilgrims are staying the night is hostels or other shared indoor sleeping quarters. These close quarters help add levity to Tom’s sometimes tedious adventure.
“The Way” was inspired by Emilio Estevez’s own son, Taylor. It started in 2003 as a project when Taylor, at the time 19 years old, and Sheen, whose The West Wing TV series was in hiatus, took part in the pilgrimage route. Taylor, who served as an associate producer on the film, had driven the length of the Camino with his grandfather. The movie was released in 2011.
Estevez also found inspiration in his vineyard, Casa Dumetz, where he wrote much of the dialogue for the film. Exploring the universal themes of loss, community and faith, he saw parallels with the characters in The Wizard of Oz. I found it easy to relate with the character of Tom, simply because he is approximately the same age that I am now.
I enjoyed “The Way.” It may not be for everyone, particularly if you don’t understand the appeal of hiking, but it resonated with me because of the concept of seeking. Seeking meaning. Seeking companionship. Seeking acceptance. Seeking answers.
Perhaps you too will find some answers if you watch “The Way.”