The movie year 2011 was an extraordinary year in many respects, not least for notable religious themes on the big screen. Most memorably, the fact-based drama Of Gods and Men gave the world an indelible portrait of Christian community at its most compelling and attractive, while Terrence Malick’s magnum opus The Tree of Life painted questions of life, death, grief, and faith in both scientific and mystical lights on a canvas at once intimate and cosmic. Among many other offerings on US screens that year was a little film that has inspired any number of people over the last dozen years to travel to the north of Spain and spend weeks or months hiking an ancient network of pilgrimage ways to Santiago de Compostela near the northwestern Spanish coast.
The film is The Way, a family passion project starring Martin Sheen and written and directed by his son, Emilio Estevez, and the pilgrimage route is called the Camino de Santiago or the Way of St. James. The story follows a lapsed Catholic named Tom (Sheen) whose estranged son (briefly played by Estevez) unexpectedly dies on the eve of setting out to walk the Camino. As a father-son collaboration between Sheen the Catholic revert and Estevez the agnostic, The Way can be seen as a kind of dialogue between faith and agnosticism. While it’s not about religious belief or conversion — Tom still seems pretty lapsed in the end, and, notably, none of the supporting characters have changed much either — one thing The Way is about, to my mind, is what the structures of religion can offer us when the chips are down. In my review I wrote:
The catch-phrase “spiritual but not religious” is among the most glib and insipid pieties of our times. The Way, with its centuries of tradition, its ritual gestures and formalities, its institutions and symbols, its physically demanding regimen, and its cultural, Christian and Catholic particularity, is a gratifying reminder of how religion grounds and enriches us in ways that “spirituality” can’t. “Spirituality” has no traditions or rituals, makes no demands, gives us nothing to do in times of crisis. Spirituality itself points beyond spirituality to religion — a point The Way makes with unforced persuasiveness.
When I first heard that Estevez was noodling concepts for a sequel to The Way, I was frankly skeptical, but the idea is growing on me. In an era of increasingly crushing superhero franchise exhaustion, the idea of revisiting the world of a small film that came out the year before the Avengers ever came together onscreen has a certain undeniable appeal — and the theme of world travel has a new attraction in the post-Covid pandemic era. Anyway, that’s probably what Fathom Events organizers were thinking when they tapped popular travel guru Rick Steves for a featurette about The Way and the Camino to play after the film, in theaters on Tuesday, May 16.
I spoke recently via telephone with writer–director Estevez about making The Way, the film’s impact, and what the film’s Catholic fans can expect from the sequel.
Santiago: The Camino Within, a 68-minute documentary narrated by Bishop Donald Hying, is in theaters one day only — Tuesday, March 28 — courtesy of Fathom Events.
Is there grace for such pilgrims as these? Perhaps, but it may not take the form they seem to be seeking. At the end of the road, some viewers might feel let down at what has not changed for the main characters, but perhaps this is to miss the change that matters most. Emilio has said that the film is “pro-people, pro-life.” So it is, in more ways than one.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.