The Way, a haunting movie starring Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez, takes its viewers on the road to a very popular destination—the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain.
This world-famous cathedral—it is commonly believed—holds the remains of St. James the Greater, an apostle. Pilgrims hike here in large numbers and from long distances, often starting in France, to venerate this highly revered saint. For over 10 centuries, millions have come on pilgrimage to this great shrine along a variety of routes from all over Europe and beyond.
The Way received considerable attention when it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last October. Martin Sheen stars in the film. Emilio Estevez, his son, wrote, produced and directed the film—and acts in it, as well.
On July 15, during a joint interview, Estevez and Sheen shared many thoughts with St. Anthony Messenger at the Serra Retreat in Malibu, California. (The center is run by the Franciscan Friars of the St. Barbara Province.) Both Sheen and Estevez have homes in Malibu—not far from the retreat center—and visit the friars there from time to time.
The Toronto Film Festival
When I ask Estevez to describe how The Way was received at the Toronto Film Festival, he says, “It was lovely. People just sat there as though they had never seen anything like it! And really, there has never been a movie like this before.” Estevez says further, “It was like two hours of simply watching people walk—and yet it works.”
Sheen adds, “It’s so powerful! During the second screening—in a very old building and crowded theater in Toronto—two thirds of the way through the movie, the fire alarms went off. Now you’d think—in such an old building—people would go flocking right out of there, but only one guy got up.”
“And then he came back!” Estevez says with a grin, completing his father’s observation.
The day before my interview with Sheen and Estevez, I had an opportunity, with a few other colleagues, to see The Way in a Beverly Hills screening room. Before the film started, Sheen personally welcomed the 50 or so guests and talked informally about the film.
Many at the screening found The Way an awesome experience. In the film, Sheen plays Tom, an American doctor and widower who is called to France to recover the body of his adult, estranged son, Daniel (played by Estevez), who was accidentally killed by a snowstorm in the Pyrenees while hiking the Camino de Santiago (the way of St. James). Driven by immense grief, Tom decides to have Daniel’s body cremated and to finish, by himself, the 500-mile pilgrimage his son had begun. Carrying with him a small metal container of Daniel’s ashes, Tom spreads them from time to time along the picturesque Camino route—from the Pyrenees in France to Santiago de Compostela.
One of the devices Estevez uses in The Way is to have the film’s four main characters loosely parallel the well-known foursome of The Wizard of Oz. Thus, the character played by Sheen, Tom, becomes “our Dorothy,” according to Estevez. Tom eventually runs into “the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion and the Tin Man—and Santiago becomes our Oz.”
The three key characters in The Way representing, respectively, the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion and the Tin Man, are Jack (an Irish author with writer’s block), Joost (a loud, pompous Dutchman) and Sarah (a depressed Canadian strapped with guilt). Estevez says that in his film, “The road is marked in yellow,” while in The Wizard of Oz, it was a yellow brick road that led Dorothy and companions to Oz.
According to Estevez’s story, Tom is on a golf course in Los Angeles when he receives the news that Daniel has died.
“I present Tom,” Estevez tells me, “as a guy who is emblematic of where America has been for the past 20 years. We’ve been isolated. We have not been citizens of the world. And that has caused us a great deal of distress. We’ve built a wall around ourselves. As my father says, ‘The country club guy goes about his business, but he’s spiritually and emotionally bankrupt—and emotionally cut off.’
“And so, when Tom gets the horrible news that his son has died, it changes his life. Daniel is quite the opposite of Tom. Daniel is this free spirit. When we meet Daniel, we see a guy who is conflicted and doesn’t want the life his father had. Daniel really wants to see and experience the world. He doesn’t want to just sit behind a desk. His life is ultimately his own doing. This is a reverse in many respects. We read stories about sons becoming their fathers. In this story, however, the father becomes the son. He becomes the pilgrim.”
‘It’s About Being Human’
When I ask Sheen whether he considers The Way a Catholic film, he responds, “The guy [Tom] is a Catholic, but a non-practicing Catholic. Most of the people we met on the Camino [they filmed on location] were non-practicing Catholics—nondenominational folks—but what unites everyone is the spiritual. It’s a spiritual journey that doesn’t require you to be Catholic. It’s about being human, and about getting in touch with your spirituality.”
Near the end of the interview, I ask Sheen: “When Tom’s pilgrimage comes to an end at the Cathedral of St. James, does Tom return to his childhood faith, namely Catholicism?” Sheen’s response is, “I think he has become a true pilgrim. I think he got his faith back.”
Sheen says that, for him, The Way is a film about finding ourselves. He describes three of the main characters of the film: Jack, the self-absorbed Irishman with writer’s block, Sarah, the Canadian who’s had an abortion, and Joost, the Dutchman trying to cope with obesity and self-indulgence. People generally are “looking for wholeness, forgiveness,” says Sheen. “We’re all so broken, and that’s what community is all about. We’re all broken and we just share our brokenness.”
Arriving at the Cathedral
Finally the small group of pilgrims comes to the centuries-old Cathedral of St. James. Something there is “very, very profound,” says Sheen. “It’s sacred. It’s transcendent! You just walk in there. I don’t know how Moses felt when he saw the burning bush, but it’s something close to that. And it belongs to them. The place is there because there are pilgrims. They are not pilgrims because the place is there.”
Near the end of The Way—as pilgrims have done for centuries—Tom enters the great cathedral that marks the completion of his long pilgrimage, the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Near the altar, he sees Daniel (an apparition) standing with a group of men. Filled with awe, Tom watches the giant smoking censer swinging back and forth, like a huge pendulum high above the cathedral floor. Known as the botafumeiro, the huge censer or thurible is operated by these men, who pull together on the ropes, causing the censer to rise and swing in a wide arc of 140 feet and to amazing heights. In Catholic liturgy, burning incense signifies giving adoration to God.
Estevez tells me that this awesome ritual “is done on Sundays during Mass and on big feast days.” He adds that, when he first saw the huge swinging censer and all the smoke rising from it, “My mouth was hanging open!” Then, when he realized that the authorities actually wanted him to include this awesome ritual in his movie, he gasps: “How in the world am I going to get this on film? Where should I put the camera? I literally began shaking when they wanted me to do this on film—and they wanted me to do the filming during the service itself. We had only one hour to shoot the Mass and the botafumeiro!”
Estevez says that the sudden turn of events came as something of a surprise. He and Sheen had learned earlier that the archbishop of the Archdiocese of Santiago de Compostela, Julián Barrio Barrio, as well as the Spanish government, had been “worried that we [the U.S. filmmakers] were somehow going to mock the Church” and possibly do harm to the reputation of Spain’s centuries-old pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.
Praise From the Archbishop
But in the end everything turned out well. The final scenes of The Way were filmed. And Estevez happily explains that, when they finally showed the film to the archbishop, Archbishop Julián Barrio Barrio “turned to Martin and said, ‘This movie is a gift to us,’ and he gave Martin a big hug!” Greatly relieved, Sheen says, “We had not realized how generous [Spain and the Church were] in giving us their national treasure!”
Estevez later points out that the Estevez family is Catholic and has “very deep and serious roots in Spain,” and Spain should be aware of that: “Martin’s father—my grandfather—was from Galicia” (the area of Spain where the Camino de Santiago ends), and that part of Spain is celebrated throughout the film, which, Estevez notes, is dedicated to his grandfather (Francisco Estevez).
Because of this, Estevez says he was a bit startled “that either the Spanish government or the Catholic Church would have thought that Martin and I would have taken an anti-approach [in the film]. This movie is not anti-anything. This movie is pro-life and pro-people—and not an anti-thing!”
In looking back over this thought-provoking film, I see The Way largely as a story of loss and recovery—of human weakness and hope—and the struggle to find healing in community. We’re all on the road to Compostela!
Watch video of Martin Sheen explaining how he got his name.