Sunday, 26 June 2011


Went to see The Way this evening at Phoenix Square Film and Digital Media Centre. The film stars Martin Sheen as Tom, a middle-aged widower, who travels from California to Europe to collect the body of his son, Daniel (played in flashback by Sheen's real life son, Emilio Estevez, who also wrote, produced and directed the film) who has died in the Pyrenees while walking the Camino de Santiago, the ancient pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostella in Spain. This is "The Way of Saint James". Driven by his profound sadness and his desire to understand his son better, Tom decides to embark on The Way himself, leaving his "California bubble life" behind.

I first thought of seeing this as a companion piece to Apocalypse Now (which I'd seen in a newly released digital print at Phoenix Square a couple of weeks before). They have a superficial, if spooky, feel of being bookends, since both have Martin Sheen undertake a perilous journey of self-discovery, meeting with a mix of bizarre characters on the way. But whereas Apocalypse Now notoriously features helicopters strafing Vietnamese villagers to the sound of Wagner's Ride of the Valkyrie, The Way's greatest moment of peril has Sheen jump into a fast-flowing stream to rescue his rucksack as it is swept away downstream. But in the context of this moving, personal story, there's nothing trivial about that. The rucksack contains the MacGuffin of this story: his son Daniel's ashes. While Captain Kilgore revels in the smell of napalm in the morning, Tom and his fellow pilgrms more ofthen than not awake to the smell of fresh brewed coffee and new baked bread in one of the hostelries devoted to hosting the travellers. But there are privations and sacrifices of other, deeper sorts that have to be made along The Way.

Martin Sheen has ascended to the position of an icon of decency and righteousness, the way earlier stars like Glenn Ford or Jimmy Stewart were looked on by earlier generations. I loved him as President Bartlett in The West Wing (1999-2006). Who didn't? Nobel Laureate Jed Bartlett was infinitely preferable to the real incumbent in the White House. I came late to the show, never having watched a single episode on TV but troughing it on DVD (although it still took more than a couple of years for me to get through all 154 episodes).

I found this an unexpectedly beautiful film, full of genuinely moving little touches that set the ancient rituals of pilgrimage firmly in the modern world. Their journey progresses over idyllic Spanish countryside towards the Cathedral in Santiago where it is believed the remains of the apostle St James are held. Most pilgrims on The Way choose to carry a scallop shell with them to symbolised their journey in honour of St James. According to legend, scallop shells covered the body of St James after it was found on the shore of the Galician coast. Some of the pilgrims that the film shows on this ancient route have iPods and mobiles, the skyline is punctuated by spinning wind turbines and on the last night of walking the route, Tom maxes out his credit cards on one night of luxury in a swanky hotel for the ill-assorted quartet of travellers who have come together on The Way. the three whom Tom meets and walks with are among those who seek physical or spiritual healing for themselves or others, penance, enlightenment (these lofty aims are occasionally accompanied by, or disguised by, more mundane desires such as quitting smoking or losing weight).

I don't think I've heard so many tearful sniffles at a movie, nor so many gasps at relatively low-key incidents (though I probably don't go to films where the audience is meant to gasp or cry). One member of the audience sat weeping through the end credits and almost had to be escorted from the theatre by staff. That's how moving this film was.

This one definitely goes on the list of movies to be proposed for a short season at Phoenix Square during National Inter Faith Week later this year.

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