“It’s less about religion and faith and more about spirituality and living life.”
So said Emilio Estevez in an interview with The Daily Beast shortly before the release of his film, “The Way,” in October.
One hates to tell the man who wrote, directed and acted in any film that he’s wrong, but nevertheless Estevez is wrong.
“The Way,” available on DVD as of Feb. 21, isn’t a perfect film. Estevez is still developing as both a writer and director. It is, however, a good film — charming, simple and refreshingly real.
It’s also profoundly religious.
Not typical Hollywood film
Shot on location in France and Spain, “The Way” follows a grieving father (Martin Sheen, Estevez’s father) and three makeshift companions as they journey along el Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James).
At first glance, the setting seems like an unlikely one for a motion picture. Although Christian pilgrims have traveled the Camino for more than a thousand years, walking the 500-mile path from the French Pyrenees to the Cathedral of Santiago del Compostela, nothing about the Camino says “Hollywood blockbuster.”
In 2003, however, Estevez’s 19-year-old son, Taylor, and Sheen, made the pilgrimage. Not long after, Sheen proposed the idea of doing a movie about the Camino to his son. At first, Sheen wanted to just make a documentary. Estevez wanted to do something more.
If a movie about the Camino seems unlikely, Estevez writing and directing that movie seems even more unlikely. Although his father is a practicing Catholic, Estevez is not. “Searching agnostic” comes closer to the mark.
Nevertheless, as Estevez told Our Sunday Visitor, he was drawn to the project because it was so different from much of what comes out of Hollywood these days.
“Filmmaking is supposed to be about storytelling and the people at the center of the stories, but Hollywood has gotten so far away from that,” he said. “There’s also a lot that’s dark in the movies people are making today. I wanted to make a movie that was hopeful and communicated a very different message about the human person.”
The end result is a movie that Estevez described as “pro-human and pro-life.” His description holds, in many senses.
It also is pro-religion, again in many senses.
On one level, the Church itself is treated respectfully in the film. Two priests figure into the story line and both are not only faithful, they’re also warm, affable and real. The traditions of the Camino are likewise respected, not mocked.
On a deeper level, “The Way” is pro-religion in that it depicts religious rituals, traditions, and devotions as the means by which peace and healing comes for the movie’s main characters.
At the outset, neither Sheen’s character, Tom, nor his companions — the bitter, chain-smoking Canadian Sarah, the amiable Dutchman Joost and the disaffected Irish writer Jack — seem to be making the pilgrimage for religious reasons. Tom is walking the Camino to honor his dead son, who died in an accident along the route. Sarah is ostensibly trying to quit smoking, Joost to lose weight, and Jack to write an article for a travel magazine.
Yet as their journey progresses, the real burdens each carries becomes apparent. They are all deeply wounded and those wounds draw them to the Camino. Even more importantly, in the Cathedral of St. James each finally lays down his or her burdens. There, they encounter the transcendent, and, to some extent, healing.
That is at least partly intentional. From the outset, Estevez says he wanted to counter the culture’s preferred methods for healing or self-improvement.
“We’re bombarded daily by messages to whiten our teeth, go on a diet, go under the knife,” he told OSV. “But that’s all a bunch of bull.”
As such, in “The Way” religion gives the spiritual journey on which Estevez places his characters shape and structure. It’s the embodied alternative to the culture’s remedies for fixing what’s wrong with us.
Which, of course, is ultimately what religion helps accomplish in real life as well. Christ didn’t found a spiritual movement. He founded a Church, replete with rituals, devotions and traditions through which people could come to know and love him. In effect, he gave the world true religion, a concrete, grace-soaked path to help men make the journey to him and to holiness.
However unintentionally, “The Way” recognizes that.
Accordingly, one is tempted to say that in calling the film more spiritual than religious, what Estevez is really saying is that the film is not dogmatic or catechetical. It does not preach Christ. It does, however, proclaim him.
Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.