Wednesday 25 May 2011
I went to see The Way, the film written and directed by Emilio Estevez and starring his Dad, Martin Sheen, about the Camino de Santiago. I looked forward all though a stressful week to indulging in an undemanding, life-affirming film shot in nostalgic landscapes, some of which I walked through - oh, such a long time ago now. I was just a bit apprehensive that it might be, in the best cinematic tradition, too life-affirming and therefore only cloying.
Well, it wasn't that: a quiet film, really, under-plotted, with a blissfully underplayed central performance from Martin Sheen, who can command the screen by raising an eyebrow. The landscapes: yes, they were nostalgic. The low-key plot, the fairly realistic characters and lack of obvious resolutions made it all-too real - quite close to the bone, in fact.
An aging, prosperous Californian opthalmologist, fond of leaving work early to play golf (he has one of those flash little golf buggies, never walks a single hole) receives the shocking news that his middle-aged drop-out son has died in a storm on his first day walking the Camino de Santiago. He flies to Spain to identify the body and on impulse decides, armed with his son’s kit and his son's ashes in a box, to walk the Camino himself. He meets other walkers, notably a stout Dutchman hoping to lose weight, a sad, cynical Canadian woman who wants to give up smoking and a garrulous Irish writer with writer’s block. They’re a bit clichéd, but a pretty typical sample of the kind of person you might meet walking the Camino. The bereaved doctor doesn't feel sociable, but the path keeps throwing them together, weaves its own sense of community, its own spell. They meander and argue. We see a slowly changing landscape and slowly changing relationships. It’s a slowish film, as befits the story of a very long walk.
They make it all the way to Santiago and on to the sea, where Tom casts the last of his son’s ashes. There are no epiphanies along the way. The bereaved and regretful father remains regretful. The smoker doesn't give up. The fat man doesn't lose weight. The blocked writer doesn't conceive a great novel. They are just, with the power of the path and of perseverence, more present and awake, and this is true, I think, to the experience of many, many walkers of the Camino.
I liked the film. So why did I chew my fingers throughout and go home feeling so churned up? I suppose because, gently, disarmingly, it took me back there. Seeing these landscapes, beautifully filmed, seeing the path, the actual path, I felt discomfited, confronted, raw.
The questions: Could it really be fifteen years since I was here? Why had I not been back to walk the other half of the path? What had I done with its great gifts?
The answers, after a troubled night's sleep: Yup, fifteen years! I don't know why I haven't been back - the time has not, I guess, felt right; there's some internal path I have to reach the end of first, perhaps. Life did not change magically afterwards, become easier. But, just like the walkers in the film, I'm still here and, with time, I'm more alive, not less.
It's a gentle film that revels in a sense of place and keeps its messages to the simple, but not easy, ones: You are you. You are here. Be kind. Take nothing for granted. Keep walking.