The Unlikely Pilgrims : Australian film documentary psychodrama – reviewed by Camino Downunder

In Sydney on a Monday night, this June (2013), The Unlikely Pilgrims had its world premiere.  The queue started early and it was obvious there were high expectations and excitement.

Who went to this first time viewing?   Mostly locals living in Sydney.

At this Sydney Film Festival premiere, three different audiences were discernible:

The first group were returned pilgrims – wanting to see and experience how an Australian film crew and four Australians in front of the camera performed on their beloved and cherished pilgrimage route.  These people are the same ones who want to identify (and to some extent relive those locations), which they themselves had experienced during their own time on the track and who would have indubitably gone to see the Emilio Estevez film «The Way», starring his father Martin Sheen when it was released in Australia and New Zealand in April, 2013.  This group was numerically big.

The second group was made up of future pilgrims and those about to fly out and commence their own pilgrimage sometime soon on the Camino de Santiago.  They were all ears and eyes: wanting to absorb as much as they could from this documentary.

The third group were film industry people, Sydney Film Festival people and the drug and alcohol rehabilitation people.

The title of this unique Australian documentary THE UNLIKELY PILGRIMS refers to three recovering drug addicts called Amy, Chris and Dave (all from Sydney) who in 2004 were filmed by a small Australian film crew, flying out of Sydney Airport.  It would have been the first time from Australia that three people with such challenges had done the Camino de Santiago.  In the 21st century, the Camino de Santiago attracts the whole range of humanity from Spain and Western Europe, and that is precisely why physically and intellectually disabled pilgrims are seen along this track in adapted wheel chairs and special mobile devices with their carers and support staff.  The writer briefly discussed this inclusiveness in a previous blog.

From Madrid, the three unlikely pilgrims plus their guide Ronan get to the head of the Camino Francés track at Roncesvalles in the Spanish Pyrenees.  Nowadays, more Australians and New Zealanders begin in France on the other side of the Pyrenees at St-Jean-Pied-de-Port 27km further north in France.  Spending their first night (June, 2004) in the now defunct Albergue Juvenil (Youth Hostel), which was replaced in 2011 by the refurbished and modernised new pilgrim hostel: Albergue de peregrinos de Roncesvalles.

Immediately there are issues and challenges for these three unlikely pilgrims on the Spanish pilgrimage track called the Camino Francés.  The first and fundamental issue concerning them are that they are quite clueless about many things related to walking the Camino de Santiago as 21st century modern pilgrims and the documentary film brings this issue to the surface many times.  The documentary may have been better titled: The Three Clueless Pilgrims from Australia.

Amy, at the beginning of the film documentary, aptly summarises her mental state and extreme anxiety when she says “I feel unstable … I feel sick.”  Our hapless three (Amy, Chris and Dave) who are at the start quite naïve about what it really takes to have a successful outcome.  However, what inevitably happens as a process on this pilgrimage trail is well documented cinematographically.

By having, experiencing and overcoming their multitudinous hardships they in fact lose their gullibility along The Way and replace it with insights about themselves and a better understanding of what they were doing and the geographical, cultural and historical context.  Ronan was right when he said that the Camino for him started after he returned to Australia: reflection and transformation.

Amy: the only female in the group

Amy: the only female in the group

Contrast these unlikely pilgrims’ cluelessness in the first half with the writer’s long experience of would-be and future pilgrims attending a Camino Downunder class/workshop: without exception class participants have already done huge amounts of reading and research: and some of them over many years.

It is intellectual hubris for anyone to say they know everything about the pilgrimage routes in Spain and do not need to learn anything more – and certainly in the Australian and New Zealand context this means language and culture.  It is the writer’s proposition that you can never know too much or everything about this very deeply layered and varied aspects which constitute the Caminos de Santiago.  So when you’re watching this film, you realise that our real-life three pilgrims at the start, know next to nothing: one begins to dread their fate and destiny along the Camino path due to their very fragile emotional and mental health.  However, that doesn’t mean they do not change and learn commensurate with the kilometres walked.  And that is precisely why this documentary film is authentic and worthwhile.  This documentary psychodrama then wins its spurs – it successfully does portray deeply flawed humans beings being transformed by their indomitable spirit as a result of undertaking this pilgrimage.  With insight Chris says:

The Camino seems to be a crash course in life actually (hands being banged at the same time Chris is making a boom sound) there you go – learn or don’t learn!

For us who have already undertaken this seemingly endless walk from the Pyrenees do appreciate seeing the iconic and exotic geographical place names: RoncesvallesZubiriTrinidad de Arre (Albergue de la Trinidad de Arre, just before Pamplona city)…Puente la ReinaCirauquiEstellaGrañon (the low-key and unusual pilgrim hostel in the church’s attic according to Chris)…Nájera (unfortunately where Amy is traumatised by having her money stolen)…Burgos (major city and entry to the Meseta – the elevated wheat-growing tablelands)…Hontanas (the iconic small village of 80 inhabitants on the Meseta)…León (meeting up with the lost members)…Astorga (the physical and metaphorical fork in the road for Dave and the Albergue de Peregrinos San Javier)…Ponferrada (the dominating 12th Century Templar Castle on the hill)…Villafranca del Bierzo before arriving into Galicia (autonomous community/region) and seeing the remaining two, Amy and Chris get to Samos before getting into Santiago de Compostela some four days later.

It is truly life affirming to see Amy’s face so effusive when she walks into Santiago de Compostela when comparing that same face at the beginning in the Pyrenees, writ large with fear and anxiety.

Notwithstanding their naïvety and clueless state, the writer during the film started to developed a deep respect for all three monolingual native English-speaking Australians in spite of their pre-existing challenges.  All having very problematic, unhappy childhoods and in one case being sexually abused.  Two of them having different forms of mental illness with extreme anxiety thrown into the mix and all three having abused a variety of drugs (legal and otherwise) in their youth and as young adults.

It is actually a remarkable feat of human endurance and more importantly, human resilience that these three hapless Australians as portrayed in the documentary were able to rise to the occasion more often than not.  The evidence is clear that walking this remarkable, if not magical track – the Camino de Santiago started to rebuild their characters (nearly destroyed by years of abuse, neglect and drug taking) during their time on the track and after having left it.  When all three came up to the stage after the Premiere and answered questions from the audience, there was a realisation that nine years later, after their original Camino, have been a period of growth and development for all of them.

Chris: the only one at his own pace, on his ownChris: (photo to the left) – the only one to walk at his own pace and on his own, for much of the time


Ronan’s obvious failure is to thoroughly prepare his charges before leaving their comfort zone (Sydney).  During the documentary and towards the end, there is a very significant conversation between Chris and Ronan.  Chris says to Ronan he suffered and cried on the Camino on his own, without Ronan knowing anything about it or he (Chris) asking Ronan for assistance.  He accuses Ronan to his face of being irresponsible and not supporting or assisting him and the others sufficiently.  Ronan, on the other hand defends himself by saying that they should have taken more responsibility and his role was not there to be their counsellor.  He was simply there to guide and accompany them. Evidence: Ronan walks with a waking pole: the three walk unassisted.  The exception being Chris in the first stage walks with a crudely cut tree branch;  but later he walks with a traditional wooden walking staff (available for purchase all the way along the Camino path).  The others don’t seem to know you should walk with hi-tech walking poles in order to avoid accumulated physical injuries and have a faster recovery period in the afternoon when the day’s walking has stopped. (See a previous Camino Downunder blog on walking poles

On stage after the Premiere, Ronan continues to justify his position: he says there is a fine line between rescuing and standing on your own two feet.  He is absolutely right.  However, this reviewer comes to this issue from a different point of view.  He is an educator: he believes passionately that quality education will and always does make a difference.  The cliché is true: knowledge is power – it always empowers the individual in all circumstances by giving them choices.  This is what we call in the 21st century: human capital.  Training was also required to be up skilled.  Having good hi-tech walking gear and accessories do result in a better walking outcome – evidence based.  Ronan’s failure was the failure not to teach or train well enough his charges so as to neutralise on the track their disproportionate toxic feelings and emotions to certain triggers.  But in Ronan’s defence: he is not a teacher nor an educator.

Ronan: leading The Unlikely Pilgrims

Ronan: leading The Unlikely Pilgrims

Doing the Camino de Santiago is not a walk in the park; however you don’t need to be an elite athlete either to complete it successfully; but you do need to be resilient and have mental stamina.  You do need to trouble shoot on a daily basis, you do need to understand the geography and the local cultures and this heterogeneity.  You certainly need to have some knowledge of the language.  Indeed, for every challenge or read the word “challenge” as a “problem”; there is always, always an adequate solution.  And it is precisely the mental stamina and resilience (or some will say their religious faith) which counts more on balance.  Therefore, if one is suffering one or two emotional issues and/or mental illness it becomes more challenging than it needs to be in order to successfully complete such a walk without timely and sustained support.

Ronan’s imposed 30 days walking from Roncesvalles to Santiago de Compostela is good for him: but it is bad for the others.  And it is for this reason early on, Chris decides to walk on his own, most of the time and most importantly, to walk at his own pace.  It is the reviewer’s considered opinion that the aggregated injuries along the Camino arise when the pilgrim walks to someone else’s rhythm or pace.

In the film, Dave has a conversation with Ronan at Astorga: they are both sitting on an outdoor seat, the backdrop being the Bishop’s Palace.  See photo below of The Bishop’s Palace – Gaudí’s masterpiece (1887-93) and it is here that we learn Dave will no longer continue his pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela 250 km away.  We learn later that Dave returns to Astorga, 6 years later to finish what he had left undone.  Astorga in many ways is a metaphor for arriving on to the Camino track at a critical juncture and also departing from it too.  The southern pilgrimage track called the Vía de la Plata (Silver Way) from Seville or Ruta de la Plata (Silver Route) intersects with the ancient Roman road (east/west direction) and called the Via Traiana – for Dave it becomes his classic fork in the road decision.

Astorga: Gaudí's masterpiece The Bishop's Palace

Dave and Ronan on a good day

Dave and Ronan on a good day

There must have been shock and horror to returning pilgrim audience members on that Monday night to actually conclude that apart from Ronan, the three recovering drug addicts had done very, very little preparation and that their knowledge of Spain, of its history in general and of the pilgrimage history and culture in particular, showed up their ignorance.


At the start, our clueless (unlikely) pilgrims did not have one word of Spanish up their sleeve – towards the end, the film audience heard the odd “Buen Camino“.  Why would they?  Why did they leave Australia without any language training or cultural insights?  The answer screams out from the film: no one had any Spanish language skills.  Even Ronan who has been on the Camino 5 times (we are informed) has a poor working knowledge of Spanish.  The film crew, when filming themselves in their support car in León and looking for their subject(s), can only communicate in English to Spanish people who live on the Camino track.  This is an appalling situation.  It appears that some Australians assume the whole world speaks English, because English in the 21st century has now become the lingua franca of the world – it is how a Mongolian will communicate to a Moroccan – by using English as the common language whose native languages are different.  This situation, therefore makes for errors of judgements when native English-speaking visitors go to a non-English speaking country like Spain and can’t communicate in places where there is so little English.  ****On that Monday night, Chris responds to the question with: “Learn a little bit of Spanish ¿Dónde está el baño?”- he gets a laugh from the audience.

Throughout Spain and certainly along the full length of the Camino Francés, language politics and traditions for the following languages Castilian/Castellano [Spanish], Euskera [Basque] and Galician/Galego/Gallego impact on everyone, everyday.

Here is an Australian film crew, filming in Spain and it is obvious from the film, that this film crew’s problems in León could have been solved very quickly had they hired or contracted a multilingual interpreter/translator.  Reading the film credits, there is no reference made whatsoever to this film crew having used any Spanish translation or interpretation services.  Just imagine a Spanish film crew and cast coming to Australia and expecting everyone they encounter during their filming to speak in their language.

To understand this documentary and its revealed relationship dynamics is to understand each of the four protagonists: three recovering drug addicts and their Camino guide Ronan, who so happens to have been their drug counsellor in Sydney and at the beginning he actually says in the film: “I’m not there to counsel you…” – but the irony is that Ronan constantly does counsel and advise; but it is always too little and too late.  It is like closing the gate after the horse has already bolted.

The Three along the track to Santiago

The Three along the track to Santiago

Technically, the cinematography at times seemed grainy and the clarity of the moving pictures leave a lot to be desired.  However, on the positive side, it was an inspired choice to have subtitles in English when significant conversations were taking place between and amongst themselves.  The map graphics in the film indicating the geographical location of the Camino de Santiago, including some mountain passes as symbols ^^^^  are never named.

Yes, you may well say that it is too easy for Camino Downunder to criticise this graphic map.  But a good, quality map can communicate better and tell a better story than not having a good map.  One cannot exaggerate the importance that geography and topography have impacted on Spain, since the beginning of documented human habitation on the Iberian peninsula more than three thousand years ago.

If you compare the dramatic and dynamic map graphics, shown in the fictional film The Way, these seemingly minor, cost cutting areas in the  final production stage of THE UNLIKELY PILGRIMS, would appear in hindsight to be a false economy.  After all, northern Spain’s geographical context is incredibly important in understanding the history and culture of this pilgrimage.  Spain’s geographical context has determined everything over the last three thousand years from the Celts to the Romans to the Visigoths, the subsequent Muslim invasion in 711 and the Reconquest taking more than 700 years to accomplish and then only in 1492.  Geography explains Spain’s different regions, now called Autonomous Communities: different languages, different histories, different traditions and customs and naturally being reflected in its different foods and gastronomy.

Q & A session after the film  For about 12 minutes, questions were taken from the audience and directed to either the two film directors John Cherry and Kirsten Mallyon or to the four protagonists: Amy, Chris, Dave and Ronan.  Body language was telling: Ronan the guide and former drug and alcohol counsellor for the three was on stage, physically quite separated from the directors and his former three charges.  During this Q & A session, Chris responds to a question from the floor by revealing that he and Amy wish to walk the Camino de Santiago again in 2014 – 10 years after they had first step foot on the Camino track.  He jokingly asks the audience if anyone out there is interested in filming them?

What was the best part of the Camino?*

What was the best pilgrim hostel along the track?**

Will a DVD be produced?***

Can you give any advice?****

CONCLUSION: The reviewer highly recommends this original Australian documentary psychodrama THE UNLIKELY PILGRIMS.

Acknowledgments: The 5 photos above from the Australian documentary THE UNLIKELY PILGRIMS was gratefully supplied by Rebecca Hyde from Miranda Brown Publicity (Publicist for this documentary film).  The photo of Antonio Gaudí’s Bishop’s Palace at Astorga was supplied by Y.A.E.G.

Documentary Film Credits: Directed by Kirsten Mallyon and John Cherry.  Producer: John Cherry.  Length: 90 minutes.

Reviewer: Marc Grossman from


* Chris said walking on his own.

** The albergue at Grañon: Hospital de Peregrinos San Juan Bautista

*** Yes.

**** See Chris’s response in LANGUAGE ISSUES


Camino Downunder is attending the world premiere documentary psychodrama “The Unlikely Pilgrims” at the Sydney Film Festival

On Monday, June 10 as part of the 2013 Sydney Film Festival will be premiered Australia’s first ever full length film as a documentary genre about the Camino de Santiago – specifically, the Camino Francés track commencing in the Pyrenees.

Although, the dramatic background is the Camino de Santiago from Roncesvalles in the Spanish Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela in Spain’s far northwest; the narrative concerns three recovering drug addicts (two men and one female).  All three from Sydney are very fragile emotionally, psychologically and physically.  They are guided and advised by their drug and alcohol counsellor who is of Irish descent having previously walked the Camino Francés a number of times.  These three deeply flawed human beings are nonetheless transformed by their Camino experiences; but their extreme reactions on the Camino Francés have their genesis in their previous lives before getting onto this pilgrimage track.  However, their time on the Camino is existential.

Unlike the fictional American film The Way (previously reviewed by Camino Downunder in 2012), this is a unique film genre and it took 9 years from concept and filming in 2004 to its first public viewing this month in June, 2013. 

Information received is that this World Premiere on Monday night has already sold-out.

Camino Downunder will be reviewing this 90 minute film and will post the film review and critique in the Camino Downunder Blog.

To see the film trailer from the Sydney Film Festival site, click on the link below

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.