I attended last night a private screening in London of The Way, a film starring Martin Sheen and written and directed by his son Emilio Estevez, which opens September 30 in the U.S. Both Sheen and Estevez were on hand afterwards for a Q&A with a largely Christian, and highly appreciative, audience.
The Way begins with the death of a young man, Daniel (Estevez), in the Pyrenees at the start of the Camino de Santiago, the 500-mile pilgrimage route to the shrine of St James in north-west Spain. But the film is really about his father Tom (Sheen), a California ophthalmologist, who flies to south-west France to collect the body, but decides to cremate the remains and to make the pilgrimage himself, scattering his son’s remains along the route. (This not an imagined idea. At least one pilgrim dies each year, usually in the harsh Pyrenean storms. When Estevez began shooting in 2009 a 30-year-old Dutchman got caught out in February of that year. His parents came out in the summer and finished the camino for him.)
As Tom walks stiffly across northern Spain, locked in his grief, other pilgrims begin sticking to him, each with different motives for giving up six weeks of their lives to walk with a backpack. Joost (Yorick van Wageningen), a kind but weak-willed Dutchman, wants to lose weight; an angry Canadian woman, Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger), wants to quit smoking; while Jack (James Nesbitt), a self-obsessed Irish travel journalist, wants to overcome writer's block. But as they clock up the miles, other, deeper reasons come to the fore. Meanwhile, the tension and delight of the movie is in the way the characters interact. When Estevez explained afterwards that the characters are drawn from the Wizard of Oz template – Tom as Dorothy, Joost as the cowardly lion, Sarah as the Tin Man with the broken heart, and Jack as the Scarecrow – there was a murmur of recognition from the audience.
The joy of the film is in the way the tensions between them are gradually replaced by love, which is the real magic of pilgrimage. “People on the camino say that the bonds they form in the six to eight weeks they are on the road are a lot stronger than the bonds they forge during the four years at university,” explained Estevez.
Sheen added: “The experience along the camino is so universal with pilgrims discovering that they are, just by virtue of their broken humanity, loved, and that realisation changes lives – and relationships. I often think of Teilhard de Chardin’s phrase that when we discover we are loved we discover fire for the second time. It’s that fire that we warm and enlighten each other with. And that’s what this pilgrimage is about: it’s discovering that they’re loved in spite of all their problems and their brokenness and darkness. They discover they’re loved and that’s the whole point of community.”
I warmed to Sheen immediately. It’s unusual to meet a movie star who quotes Teilhard. “I had to get him to play a lapsed Catholic,” joked Estevez of his Dad. “That was my challenge.”
The father-son theme runs not just through the movie but in and around it too. The idea for the film came when Sheen and his grandson Taylor did the camino in 2003 (by car, because there wasn’t enough time between shooting episodes of the West Wing to do it on foot). At their first stop, in Burgos, Taylor met his now wife, and has lived in Spain since. “That was the first miracle”, said Sheen, who persuaded his son to script and direct a movie about the famous medieval pilgrim route, which has become a modern European phenomenon.
The father-son theme is part of the backstory in two other ways. The movie is dedicated to Sheen’s father, Francisco Estevez, who was born near Santiago de Compostela. Growing up in Ohio, the young Sheen heard his father speak often of the camino. The second was that, while Sheen and Estevez were in London yesterday, the newspapers were running stories about his other son Charlie’s battle with drug addiction. Sheen has been asking people to pray for him, saying that people who take drugs are also looking for transcendence.
The Way set out to be authentic and succeeds spectacularly. Like Of Gods and Men, it dares to eschew whizz-bang drama devices and extravagant plot twists, and has lengthy periods of silence and walking, allowing the viewer to “join in” the journey. The film was shot on the camino itself (Estevez reckons the crew did 350kms in all of the route) and all the non-speaking characters in the movie are real pilgrims who gave permission to have their images used.
They shot over 40 days using Super-16 and available light: the night-time sequences were lit with bonfires and candles. “It was guerrilla-style filmmaking,” Estevez says. Despite the constant threat of rain in the region, it only rained twice. "There were many, many providential moments. It was really amazing.”
Sheen, too, seemed awed by the way things changed each day, and they found themselves surrendering to grace-filled opportunities. “We were just led along the way, to surrender, as pilgrims must, to what was happening,” added Sheen. “It was miraculous.”
The Way captures the pilgrimage exactly: the strange mixture of motives, secular and spiritual, for doing the journey; the odd characters you meet along the way; the bunk beds and blisters and sudden changes of weather; and the spectacular scenery – although the film was careful to avoid some of the more mundane parts of the modern route, across motorways and industrial estates.
I asked Estevez if it was hard to find backing for the film.
“This is a very tough sell,” he answered. “It will depend on word of mouth, on a grassroots movement no matter where it is released. What we have always recognised is that the film plays best to human beings. When we were making the film we tried never to say that we’re going to target this or that demographic, it’s was always to make the most honest film we can and let’s invite audiences into the camino. Let’s make a film that people can be part of."
"This film is pro people; it’s pro-life," he added. "It invites you to grab a backpack and come with us.”
The film was released in Spain at the end of last year. After a screening in Santiago de Compostela its archbishop turned afterwards to Sheen and said: “Thank you. This film is a gift.”
“We all breathed a sigh of relief”, says Estevez.
Sheen, who gives an understated but masterly performance, says he is particularly proud of a long scene in the film involving the Roma community in Burgos. The director met them through his daughter-in-law’s aunt, who used to teach them. “We’re so proud of that sequence because all of Europe the Spanish government is far beyond the curve in dealing with gypsy communities through education and housing and inclusion in the community,” said Sheen. “It made us so proud that that was part of our experience.
The Way, which goes on release in the UK and Ireland in Holy Week, is uplifting, joyful, and authentic. It is a wonderful tribute to the Camino. It may not do well. But it will do much good.