Spiritually misguided: Martin Sheen in "The Way"
Notwithstanding the efforts of Mel Gibson and the sub-genres dealing with demonic possession and/or apocalypse, mainstream cinema tends to steer well clear of what one might call the day-to-day workings of religion these days. What it does love however is "spirituality", that frothy, airhead quality so prized by a pick'n'mix culture for which being "judgmental" (i.e. having an opinion) is the very gravest of sins. Being "spiritual" in the movies — such as the recent Julia Roberts hit Eat Pray Love — is all about self-improvement, moving on, opening your mind, getting closure, blah blah blah. A few traditional religious artefacts can be hung around the periphery of the story to give it an air of authenticity, but basically it remains all about Me and My Journey.
So it is with The Way, in which Martin Sheen — best known to modern audiences as the liberal wish-fulfilment fantasy President Jed Bartlet in TV's West Wing — walks the 800 kilometres of the Camino de Santiago on a pilgrimage which takes him from the French Pyrenees to the north-west of Spain, ending at the Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela, where it is believed the remains of the apostle St James are held. That's one hell of a walk, and even though the movie is only a couple of hours long, it feels as if we're with him every step of the way.
Sheen's character, Tom, is a reasonably affluent but grief-stricken Californian doctor who has made the journey to France to collect the remains of his estranged son, who has died in an accident while undertaking the famous walk, which Tom ends up doing for him as a form of tribute. Along the way he first endures and then finally warms to a motley group of fellow-walkers, all there for their own different reasons, none of which seem that compelling: an emotionally damaged middle-aged woman, a dope-smoking Dutchman who wants to lose weight, and a tedious Irish travel-writer (James Nesbitt) with a creative block.
Directed by Sheen's son Emilio Estévez, The Way is, in effect, a road movie, albeit one which takes itself rather seriously. Road movies are among my favourites, but to work they have to be either sprung with effective narrative traps, or else simply provide the set-up for some sophisticated, insightful exchanges between characters we have come to care about. But the conversation on this journey is not worth the blisters. What about some exploration of the meaning of faith? Wouldn't it cross their minds more than just fleetingly? The Camino de Santiago has attracted pilgrims of all religions for a thousand years. Presumably, faith of some sort is a requirement, if such a journey is to have any meaning. But no: these characters are simply modishly disaffected. Religion, and the real meaning of pilgrimages, are barely given a look-in. Tom, we learn, is pretty lapsed, the Dutchman seems untroubled by thoughts of any kind, and the writer is positively antagonistic to churches and the things in them. These are people who are simply looking for answers to their problems, to discover, as the film's producers put it, the difference between "the life we live and the life we choose". (I wonder if they really meant this; are not these things one and the same?)
By the time he reaches the cathedral, Tom has opened up about himself a bit, told the boring Irishman some home truths and had his belongings stolen and returned by what must be Europe's best-behaved group of gypsies (a development which was greeted by gales of laughter at the press screening). The Europeans along the way — by turns eccentric, taciturn and just so damn real — have obviously done the trick too, as they did for Julia Roberts and always tend to do for certain kinds of Americans uncomfortable with themselves or their material success. We are led to believe that, as he returns to his everyday life, Tom has become better and is now, as the film's production notes put it, a Citizen of the World — a suitably meaningless title for one at the centre of so vacuous an enterprise.