The Way: film by Emilio Estevez being released in Australia in April 2012

Emilio Estevez’s film THE WAY starring his father Martin Sheen had its world premiere in 2010.  It is being released in Australian cinemas in April and May, 2012.  To summarize in one sentence, the film recounts the story of an American father heading to a small French Basque town to recover the body of his estranged son who died in the Pyrenees during a snow storm whilst on the Camino de Santiago and decides to walk the Camino accompanied by his son’s cremated ashes.

THE WAY is the English equivalent of EL CAMINO in Spanish.  Most people in the English speaking world would better recognize The Camino de Santiago than The Way or its longer title The Way of St James.In The Way - a vertically panned close-up of the Pilgrim's Pass

Emilio Estevez is Martin Sheen’s oldest of 4 children.  The three other children are Charlie Sheen, Renée Estevez (who in this film makes a cameo appearance as Tom Avery’s [Martin Sheen] medical secretary) and Ramon Estevez.

Martin Sheen’s parents emigrated to the USA: his father (Francisco Estévez 1898-1974) was a Galician from north-west Spain, where the Camino de Santiago’s end point is the city of Santiago de Compostela and his mother came from county Tipperary in Ireland.  Sheen was born (1940) Rámon Antonio Gerardo Estévez and raised in the USA but changed his name to ‘Martin Sheen’ when he left the family home and moved to New York to find work as an actor.

In 2010 Sheen tells a news conference in Santiago de Compostela: “I’ve always felt the balance between the two cultures, I’ve never felt more Spanish than I did Irish and I’ve never felt more Irish than I did Spanish.  I love both countries, and both cultures had a profound effect on me.

It may be a surprise to some: Irish people and Galicians: people living in north-west Spain – having a distinct culture and language; much different from the rest of Spain, have something in common: they share having the same Celtic roots, they have a similar musical instrument (the bagpipe or gaita), the same sea – the Atlantic Ocean and domination by the Ancient Romans, Vikings and Saxons, but their native languages are different.  The Celts were the ones displaced and/or subjugated by the Roman invasions of Western Europe.  Generally speaking, Irish people and Galicians have fair or light skin, and sometimes light coloured eyes.

THE WAY sharply contrasts the main protagonist’s life (Tom Avery and played by Martin Sheen) in America with his life on the Camino track.  The film’s first scenes in Ventura, California are with a patient in his medical specialist practice and then playing recreational, social golf.  And whilst on a golf course he gets a call from the French Gendarmerie, in the French Pyrenees town of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port saying that his only son has been killed in a snow storm whilst crossing the Pyrenees on the Camino de Santiago.

The medieval style map graphics are often seen during the film’s narrative as the walkers make their way along the Camino from the French side of the Pyrenees all the way to the rugged and beautiful Spanish coastline in Galicia at Muxía.

In the opening credits there are close-ups of the various stamps in the pilgrim’s credencial.   And there is a forward up look of the names along the track, places such as Los Arcos, Logroño, Nájera, … Sto. Domingo de la Calzada… This is in fact the back of the  pilgrim’s pass (see photos below) from the (French) Friends of the Camino de Santiago Office at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port (SJPdP).

In the train from Bayonne to SJPdP, Tom Avery has his first of many flash backs with his dead son… The father collects his deceased son’s belongings (backpack, walking gear, guidebook and map) and after cremation decides to walk the pilgrimage route with “his son” (the cremated remains) and not return home to California.

The father, takes his son’s pilgrim pass on his Camino and in the film there is a flash back when Daniel Avery says “Merci” on getting his credencial stamped at Les Amis du Chemin de Saint-Jacques in the old part of St-Jean-Pied-de-Port.  The first stamp is the unique big green looking stamp (see photo).

Universally known as the CREDENCIAL from St-Jean-Pied-de-Port

At SJPdP Tom (Martin Sheen) symbolically, goes the wrong way twice after having stayed in the expensive Hotel Les Pyrénées.  The French gendarme (Capitaine Henri Sébastien) farewells him and gives him a small pebble saying that in a month’s time he will know what to do with it at Cruz de Ferro/Hierro (536 km from SJPdP and 224 km from Santiago de Compostela).

Tom Avery wears a bright blue jacket and the film viewer constantly sees the brand name THE NORTH FACE on the front and back – it is not a subtle sign – obviously aimed at promoting The North Face products (called product placement in movies).  In the film, Tom Avery’s son Daniel wears a Marmot jacket.  The writer prefers an Arc’teryx jacket (Canadian) for his trekking and hiking gear.  Everyone has their “favourites” and it is obvious some companies do better promoting their gear than others: there is much competition…

In the film, the father gets into Roncesvalles (signs in the Pyrenees read – Roncevaux in French) late and rings the bell at La Posada (in real life this small inn/hotel exists in Roncesvalles).  And immediately, Tom argues with the female owner because he is irritated that she denies the simple fact that he has finally got into Spain, and on her part she curtly corrects him for his cultural insensitivity by saying that he is in fact in Basque country.

After this clash of two cultures, Tom is suffering both hunger and insomnia.  Joost comes to the rescue and they go outside.  After eating the Dutch pilgrim’s food, Joost then offers him a sleeping tablet, if he’s not interested in smoking a joint.  In the morning, he awakens with blue earplugs in the pilgrim hostel.  There are screen shots of pilgrims getting ready to leave and there is a shot outside of the old Albergue Itzandegia in Roncesvalles.  Before leaving, the Dutchman (Joost) and Tom the American get their pilgrim passes stamped.

The relationship which the American and the Dutchman has at this stage is problematic and full of friction: Tom calls Joost from Amsterdam fat man” and the latter, quicker still, retorts with “old man“.  Tom wants to be liberated from Joost that day and says “my feet are killing me” but not before admitting to Joost, that the ashes he is placing at regular intervals along the Camino way belong to his deceased son.

When they part company at this albergue/refugio (pilgrim hostel) in the Spanish Pyrenees, a heated discussion soon arises around the outside dinner table between a French pilgrim and the Basque hospitalero/hostel warden when arguing about the French emperor Charlemagne (circa. 742 – 814) wanting to expand his empire by invading Spain…”… No Charlemagne had other ideas, to extend his Empire, he crossed the Pyrenees, but nothing worked out as intended… This is Spain… this is BASQUE Spain!!…He tortured the Basques of Pamplona…and allowed his men to have too much drink and relaxation with our women …and the Basque shepherds who lived around here…heard what happened in Pamplona…they slipped into the woods and we, WE BASQUES…killed them…

Then a French pilgrim interrupts his version of history “Sorry monsieur… but what I have read here (pointing to a small book in his hand) that is complete crap, d’accord…” and adding insult by correcting the Basque Spaniard’s accent for the name: “Roland“.  The Spanish Basque hospitalero  continues: “The French, THE FRENCH don’t want to admit that the death of Roland was because  of Charlemagne and Christians.”

Another pilgrim around the table says: “I thought it was the Arabs who killed Roland…

HISTORICAL NOTE: Charlemagne went into Muslim Spain 778 at first by invitation from the Muslim governor of Barcelona and then the agreement was unilaterally changed…

Subsequently, Charlemagne’s retreating army experienced its worst defeat at the hands of the Basques, at the Battle of Roncesvalles in 778 (memorialised and heavily fictionalised, in the Song of Roland).  In French: La Chanson de Roland is a heroic poem which has survived to this day as a written manuscript, with about 4000 lines of hand written text and based on the 778 battle in the Pyrenees, near Roncesvalles.  This text was written in the late 11th century and is considered the oldest surviving written text in French literature.

The third person in the group: an emotionally damaged Canadian called Sarah, whom we later find out, was in an abusive relationship and decided to have her unborn child aborted.  At first she says to our protagonist she is walking the Camino to stop her chain-smoking habits…Tom says: “You sound really angry...”  She says “Sure, I’m angry… the end of the Camino is the end of my addiction…” Tom: “Spoken like a true addict..

The first stamp received at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port

In Pamplona, Joost sees Tom and calls him over at his outdoor table where he is eating a meal:

…As long as I’m sitting here, I might just order some tapas…” says Tom,  but is corrected by the Dutchman “(Here), they’re called ‘pinchos’…

Tom does not want to hear a word about ‘pinchos‘ when he retorts with hubris: “I beg your pardon Joost, here in Pamplona they are called tapas” …Here is Pamplona it’s tapas, I’ve  just read it … you see… unlike the Dutch guidebook which may be directing you to the nearest party .. the American guidebook is designed so you don’t look like a clown… if you’re ordering pinchos when you really mean tapas…”

Tom demands that Joost be quiet as he calls the waiter over to order in Spanish:  “Señor … tapas por favor.

To which the waiter emphatically responds in Spanish: “¡Tapas! Aquí no hay tapas … no, no … tapas es más Madrid, del sur … ¡eh! … aquí estamos en Navarra.  En Navarra son los pinchos ¡eh!…los pinchos y las tapas parecen mismo, pero no lo es, la tapa viene con un plato grande ¡eh!… y los pinchos vienen con un plato separados, mas pequeñitos,  más trabajados  … una presentación … convertido en una tradición…  ¿Quiere pinchos? and Tom Avery shakes his head to show he does not want to eat “pinchos“, whilst putting on his dark sunglasses to hide his shame and humiliation at having lost face in front of Joost.

Before Los Arcos on the track, the fourth person : Jack (James Nesbitt) from Ireland joins the three others who is suffering from his own crisis: writer’s block….

The longer Tom is on the Camino, the fewer pre-existing certainties he continues to hold onto and Jack from Ireland says of Tom: “finally an American without an opinion;” in the context of a deep philosophical discussion about the nature of being a true or authentic pilgrim now and in the past…. a deeply insightful discussion.

When they get to León, Tom shouts his three fellow pilgrims one night’s accommodation in the sumptuous, exquisite and very expensive Parador San Marcos, which in medieval times was a pilgrim hostel.  They each have their own private rooms and all the luxuries of a 5 star exquisite and exclusive hotel…Sarah has a pedicure, manicure, luxuriates in a bath whilst drinking champagne but they are deeply lonely, isolated and disoriented that night, so they spontaneously and unsolicitedly come to Tom’s room and replicate what they have been enjoying to the hilt for the last 4 weeks or so: the joy and happiness of being with other people, sharing a common aim of walking the Camino, a common space, all the while learning and growing.   True happiness is not luxury or material possessions.  This is a very special scene which resonates for all ex-pilgrims on the Camino.  The realisation that staying in luxurious accommodation is isolating, alienating, meaningless – true joy and happiness is connecting with people, having meaningful relationships and having a purpose or a goal – the writer well remembers staying in a modest, very centrally located hotel in Burgos for two nights because his wife was suffering from a heavy cold and by the second day, dearly wanting to ‘get back on track’ and into pilgrim hostels (albergues) as soon as possible.

The Way is therefore a profound film: it does successfully tackle a number of fundamental issues which go to the heart of the human condition and is quintessentially existential:

  • loss,
  • grieving,
  • anger,
  • problematic and dysfunctional relationships,
  • change,
  • identity,
  • intercultural issues,
  • values,
  • belief and non-belief,
  • choice,
  • transformation by journeying.

Tom the American, who tells Joost from Amsterdam that they have tapas and not pinchos in Pamplona – takes the cake – (mixed metaphor intended), one of the best scenes in the film says everything about the dangers of being an ignoramus.  The film’s subtle message: get educated about the country you’re in: learn the language if possible, be sensitive and empathetic with other human beings.  After all: human beings have much, much more in common despite their many differences.

That is one of the salient messages from the film: when the four of them are lined up, looking out towards the Atlantic Ocean, Sarah will continue her chain-smoking habits, but has found inner peace; Joost will not lose the weight necessary to get back into his old suit, and will buy a new wedding suit for his brother’s wedding; Jack from Ireland is writing again, but his subject matter and style will now be vastly different from previous published texts and Tom will continue his journey into other cultures and will continue to walk – see the very last scene.

The writer thinks we should call this serendipity (the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident).

Maybe, this is what doing the Camino de Santiago is all about.

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Comments

  1. I’ve been browsing online greater than 3 hours lately, yet I never found any fascinating article like yours. It’s lovely value enough for me. In my view, if all website owners and bloggers made just right content as you did, the internet will probably be much more useful than ever before.

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  2. I was watching an interview with Martin and he said he took the name “Sheen” because of Bishop Fulton Sheen.

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