Lapsed Vision: Emilio Estevez seeks The Way

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Emilio Estevez seeks The Way

By Gregory Solman

Despite the persevering earnestness of filmmaker Emilio Estevez, The Way wanders off a well-trodden path down too many dead ends to find the epiphany it seeks.

Dispirited and dour company among the golf buddies of his southern California suburbia, ophthalmologist Tom (Martin Sheen) undertakes a somber journey to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France, to collect the body of his son Daniel (Estevez).

An all-but-doctoral-thesis anthropologist, Daniel’s novice fieldwork ended in his unseen accidental death at the start of the Camino de Santiago, an ancient pilgrimage through the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, where tradition places the tomb of St. James. When Tom arrives, remembering the time his son lectured him on the virtues of living in the moment rather than deliberating over choices—a philosophy impractical for medical practices that can support such caprices of children—he decides to pick up Daniel’s backpack and complete the nearly 500-mile journey his son could not, seeing the world through his eyes.

Along the way, Tom collects fellow travelers Joost (Yorick van Wageningen), a jovial Dutch hash smoker who claims to be dieting to save his failing marriage, seeing the way as a fitness trail strewn with gourmet temptations; Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger), an acerbic, abused Canadian divorcée, trekking under the guise of curing her chain-smoking vice but hiding a malady of the heart; and Jack (James Nesbitt), an Irish writer suffering from writer’s block, an exasperating excess of blarney and the isolation that follows. As a group, they puncture American parochial notions of Western worldliness while still providing a welcome turn from Hollywood’s romantic fixation with an uncommitted Eastern mysticism that derides Christian experience as ignorant and ultramontane.

With a light hand, writer/director Estevez tweaks the artificiality of contemporary pilgrimages without giving in to cynicism. In one of the liveliest scenes, Tom’s companions critique false suffering and pretend poverty while hiking along a comfortably touristy trail laden with modern gadgets and credit card conveniences and retreating to luxury hotels for those for whom even a hostel means roughing it. Still, Estevez can’t—or at least won’t—penetrate any of his characters’ mysteries. Their revelations lack the profundity of reflection and their actions lack meaningful distinction.

In the case of Tom, at least, this is unpardonable. Introducing him warmly interacting with an elderly patient who wants to cheat on her eye exam by memorizing the charts, Estevez sets up a metaphor that conflicts Tom’s seeing in time against lugging the baggage of his past, presumably the memories of his recently passed wife. This dovetails with Daniel’s impertinent advice to Tom (“You don’t choose a life, Dad, you live one”) but ignores the dichotomy between ophthalmology (the practical healer who helps men see) and anthropology (the idealistic academic who dispassionately studies man). And as father-and-son fevers run, their case is mild; Daniel delivers his juvenile bromide as his father calmly drives him to the airport, and Tom complains to a colleague that gadabout Daniel checks in too rarely—hardly evidence of irreparable estrangement.

That’s crucial, because Estevez’s story implies that the lapsed Catholic Tom’s pilgrimage should be penitential. Though he shuns company and seeks silence to meditate, he rejects (but later mouths) prayer; though the self-described “Easter and Christmas” Catholic at least goes through the motions of ancient ritual practice, he adds his own skeptical twists, including the New Age sacrilege of spreading his son’s ashes along the way—a practice his church nearly exclusively forbids. That motif at least leads to an appealing excursion when a boy steals Daniel’s remains along with Tom’s backpack and the group gives chase. In the angelic-sprite storytelling tradition, they find themselves drawn into the old world of the gypsies, rediscovering a tradition of father/son honor.

Though Estevez filmed the story in a place with supposedly inspiring vistas, his vision of the Camino de Santiago remains surprisingly uninspiring, the cinematography of Juanmi Azpiroz compositionally dull. This is particularly disappointing because the Camino was last prominently visited for cinema when Luis Buñuel littered the trail with sophomoric anti-Catholic garbage in The Milky Way (1969); Estevez here shows a contrasting humanism and tolerance of his characters’ peculiarities and beliefs but doesn’t deliver visual elan.

One would expect any filmmaker in this place to balance contemplative meaning with the magisterial landscape and Romanesque architecture of millennium-old churches functioning as spiritual allegories; recall Bertolucci’s The Sheltering Sky or Powell’s A Canterbury Tale; Hudson River School painters like Albert Bierstadt showing the luminous hand of God among the Sierra Nevada; or even Kerouac’s Dharma Bums appreciating “the work of the quiet mountains, the torrent of purity at my feet” and “wishing there were a Personal God in all this impersonal matter.”

Estevez suitably defers to his pilgrims—even showing Joost finally blessed with humility on his knees before the statue of St. James and depicting the ghost of Daniel among the friars swinging the oversized thurible in the church at the trail’s end—but can’t make out their modern spiritual malaise through the incense haze. More’s the pity, because few filmmakers today have the passion to try.

Martin Sheen in The Way, directed by Emilio Estevez.

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