On The Way again

May 25, 2023 in Uncategorized

BRENDAN McMANUS SJ :: Review of the re-released film The Way, with Martin Sheen.

The Way is the iconic 2010 Camino movie that explores themes of personal faith journey, self-knowledge, and healing. It is very close to my heart having been the film that prompted me to walk the Camino de Santiago in 2011 and which gave me a lot of pointers about how to ‘grieve on the Camino’, the subject of my book Redemption Road. The film was re-released in cinemas for one night only on the 16th May 2023 and I had a poignant evening walking down that familiar road with these characters.

Seeing it again many years later, its portrayal of pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain is as fresh and poignant as ever. The reasons I love this movie are many and, obviously as a Jesuit, it is the spiritual or religious aspect that is outstanding. This is no mere pious exposition though, this is a gritty, down-to-earth, relatable human story of painful transformation and the road to freedom or ‘redemption’. “The Way” captures the essence of pilgrimage and is pretty true to my own experience of the trail. It is a physical journey on one level but as a deeper level it is about desire; people seeking a deeper connection with themselves and hoping for healing. The film illustrates well the daily challenges faced by pilgrims as they slowly make their way along, gradually (painfully at times) discovering limits, hurts in need of healing and deeper needs.

The main character, Tom, who is played by Martin Sheen, unexpectedly finds himself on the Camino in memory of his son who died in an accident on his first day on the trail. Tom is explicitly on a grief journey, which I can relate to, and wants to walk sullenly alone in his own grief. However, ironically he attracts a diverse group of fellow pilgrims, each with their own personal wounds and story, as becomes evident. This unlikely community that is formed along the way is the achingly beautiful source of redemption for each one; where each person’s story is heard, respected and healed to some degree. This is not without pain and conflict however, and the strong interactions and emergence of painful backstories is precisely where the forgiveness (grace) happens. There are a host of supporting characters, some a little bit overdone, but generally it is true to the communitarian and ‘self-revealing (telling one’s deepest secrets to strangers)’ nature of the Camino.

As the journey progresses, the characters are thrown together in close quarters for sleeping, walking, socialising and eating. The four principal pilgrims find out more about each other, have something to offer each other, and make strong bonds as they struggle with Camino realities of fatigue, hunger, and bad humour. With a few exceptions (the Irish character Jack is overdone), it is true to the Camino experience of how close bonds are quickly formed and differences are overcome in the essential solidarity of walking together. The tangible sense of a real intimacy towards the end is totally believable, having weathered the storms in accepting one’s own and other’s humanity, flaws and all.

While originally a Catholic pilgrimage from the middle ages as an alternative to Jerusalem, “The Way” highlights the universal aspect of those undertaking the pilgrimage and yet the powerful transformative spiritual dimension that is essential to its nature, which never fails to touch people as some level. What does remain as vestiges of Catholicism are the symbols, rituals and concrete sacramental aspects that induce awe and wonder in pilgrims. These churches, crosses and way markers remind them of the impressive history of the trail and the countless pilgrims in whose footsteps they walk. This historical tradition underlines the deep human desire for the transcendent and for ‘incarnational’ or embodied spirituality in terms of the often messy human journey to the divine.

My only quibble is with the ending that has the main character Tom continue his travels in some Middle Eastern country. This plays into the popular stereotype that one spends one whole time ‘on the road’, and implies that walking the Camino continually is what life is about. This is unhelpful and unrealistic; the much more important challenge is how to live the lessons of the Camino back in one’s own context (c.f. A.J. Shaia’s Returning from Camino). This required a level of commitment and conscious living that is possible but few entertain it. It is much easier to leave it at the level of a special experience in a special place, that requires returning to Spain over and over without any fundamental transformation.

In conclusion, “The Way” is a unique treasure of contemporary faith and personal growth within the ever growing popularity of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. It movingly captures the essence of the actual Camino experience, rather than an idealised one, drawing out themes of redemption, community, and human transformation. While it has a few minor flaws like any film, it is a poignant reminder of the embodied nature of spirituality and the crucial role of relationships in real redemption.

(Brendan is the author of Redemption Road – From Grief to Peace, Loyola Press)