If you have not seen the movie, The Way with Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez (and populated with cameos by a number of well-known, recognizable foreign actors), please do. It is such a wonderful movie, and well worth tracking down. (Note: Ignatius Press sells this film, and I saw it for sale in several Catholic bookstores and WalMart.
The movie starts by setting the subtext, namely, a father and son's distant, difficult relationship. The father Tom is a widower, and since his wife died, he and his only child, his son Daniel, have not gotten along. Tom wanted Daniel to finish his PhD work and be a great scholar. Daniel, on the other hand, wanted to experience life and see the world. Daniel made the decision to disappoint his father, further widening the divide between them.
Daniel announces his plan to hike el Camino, the Way, the 800km/500 mile walking pilgrimage from the French Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostella in northern Spain, and he makes himself vulnerable by asking his oh-so-practical dad to join him. Tom, naturally, scoffs at this foolishness, causing the conversation to devolve into acrimony. While neither knows it, these effectively are the last words the two will ever share in this life.
A few scenes later, Tom is playing a round of golf with some buddies when he takes a call from a French police captain informing him his son has died. Tom then travels to France to identify his only child's remains. Next, he decides to have his son cremated (an option that was given to him at the police station) and to take his son's remains to Compostella. He will belatedly take his son up on his offer to accompany him on his journey.
During the journey, he progressively picks up three fellow pilgrims, none of whose company he looked for or wants (which he makes abundantly clear in as curmudgeonly a way as possible and as frequently as possible). The ensuing relationships give the movie much of its ample humor. However, they also provide the means by which we see much of the pain and shortcomings brutally on display in these people.
Indeed, no one in this movie is a saint. The characters' behavior is often beyond unedifying. Tom, for instance, is hard to like for much of the movie. A loud, overweight Dutchman lives to eat and drink, and he smokes several joints through the film. Each pilgrim is fully in the world and of the world and has little use for religion. None -- well, almost none -- has a religious reason for walking the Camino.
There is also Tom's disregard of the Church's teachings regarding the proper disposal of cremated remains. This is put on display several times. Then again, he is not a religious man, much less well catechized. He openly says he only assists at Mass on Christmas and Easter. When he goes to see a priest after learning of his son's death--a priest who knows his name but with whom he obviously doesn't have a spiritual relationship (which begs the question, why did he go see him?)--the priest asks if he would like to pray with him. Tom's reply is something to the effect of, "What for? What good would that do?" In other words, this is not a well-formed Catholic, folks. Therefore, his improper disposition of his son's remains is pretty much what you would expect.
I wish they would have had Fr. Frank (a pilgrim they meet on the way) ask Tom if he'd like him to hear his confession. Or that anyone would have been encouraged to go to confession. Then again, maybe that would have been too tidy, too perfect. Now that I think of it, I'll take the scenes in the cathedral after they reach Compostela over something nice and pat. It's much truer to life and how the Holy Spirit works in most people's lives.
In any event, whatever its theological faults and philosophical shortcomings (there are a small few), none of this detracts from this film being so lovely. The Way is so touching, so very, very well done. It speaks in a profound way to the yearning, the longing within the hearts of each and every one of us. These are the longing for community, for relationship. After all, God made us for relationship with Him forever in heaven, and He allows us to express and experience that in the here and now through our relationships.
Therefore, to the extent we love and give of ourselves as He does, the happier we are. Think of Christmas, when we see the truth of "Tis better to give than to receive." Or consider what Our Lord says are the two greatest commandments: To know, love, and serve God with your whole body and soul, and to love your neighbor as you love yourself. Or recall Matthew 25: "Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto Me." This is what will lead to happiness.
To the extent we don't love and give of ourselves, we're not happy. Well, suffice it to say, none of these people are happy. Each thinks they're searching for one thing, but at the end, we see that the reality is very different, and it has to do with the true happiness to which God calls us.
How that resolves itself is very satisfying. Because in the end, this film is very true to the pilgrimage, not the one to Compostela, but to the pilgrimage of life. I don't think it's a mistake that several times Tom gets headed in the wrong direction, and someone kindly, gently turns him around and points him in the right one. That's often how it is with conversion, isn't it? And each person does experience conversion, although not necessarily in conventional ways. The film leaves you wondering about just what is really happening in their hearts. Just as with the people in our lives, so it is with these people: Only God knows. Deo gratias.
Congratulations to the Estevez family. They accomplished their goal: To create something fresh.
I hope you will watch it somehow. It is a breath of fresh air.