I really am turning into some sort of soppy sausage! I often find my tears welling up when I watch certain movies which manage to tug at the old heartstrings, but I wasn't expecting this to happen watching a movie about a traditional Catholic pilgrimage. The above film caught me unawares...
Starring Martin Sheen and directed by his non-Charlie son Emilio Estevez, who also wrote the screenplay based on the book by Jack Hitt, this was obviously a project close to their respective religious hearts. Sheen plays widowed and relatively carefree California ophthalmologist Tom, whose biggest disappointment is that his only son Daniel (Estevez) prefers a footloose and feckless quest for adventure rather than a more settled way of life. On the golf course with his cronies, Sheen takes a call advising that Daniel has been killed by a freak mountain storm one day out on a pilgrimage journey -- the fabled El Camino route from St. Jean Pied de Port in France across the Pyrenees to Santiago de Campostela in Spain. Off he flies to bring home the body of his beloved son.
On arrival he has a change of heart and, having had Daniel's remains cremated, decides to undertake the 500 mile journey himself as an homage and in honour of his lost son. He has all the necessary gear if not the necessary fitness, but resolves to make the journey -- however long it takes. His plan is to sprinkle some of the ashes at graves and shrines along the way, before leaving the remainder at the journey's end cathedral; he is determined to complete the pilgrimage that his son died trying to complete. Estevez made the journey himself filming the action amongst real pilgrims and real hostels en route, shooting only in natural light. However to fill out the Sheen storyline, Doctor Tom acquires some regular travelling companions: Yorick van Wageningen (the jolly 'I'm Joost from Amsterdam') who is doing the trek to lose weight but who takes every opportunity to liberally sample the food and booze on the way; Deborah Kara Unger as the jaded and cynical Canadian Sarah who sees the journey as her last chance to finally give up ciggies for good on arrival in Santiago; and James Nesbitt as blocked Irish writer Jack, who may or who may not be based on the book's author.
Sheen is initially locked into his own grief and dismissive of the friendly overtures from his fellow pilgrims, but shared efforts and hardships, including having his backpack with its holy box of ashes stolen by a gypsy boy, bring them closer. The backpack is returned by the stern father of the chastened lad and he convinces Sheen that he must continue his pilgrimage past the cathedral to the wild northern coast before spreading the last of the ashes -- not that I really understood why. Sheen's companions have every intention of ending their journey at the cathedral -- their missions accomplished or otherwise -- but in the end their new-found fellow-feeling keeps them with Sheen through the final tribute to his son. The doctor's quest is so heart-felt that at various stages of the journey, he (and we) see the late Daniel happily mingling with the crowd.
This is far too spiritual an endeavor to be lumped as another road movie and it doesn't really have the echoes of "The Wizard of Oz" that some have suggested. The movie honours a 1000-year old pilgrimage and it is clear that both Sheen and Estevez found it a moving and highly religious exercise. The standard greeting to pilgrims on The Way is 'buen camino'; indeed, father and son here have furnished the viewer with a very moving and very 'good road' for our own journey.