You often hear film-makers describing their finished projects as labours of love. In most cases, that's just sound-bite hokum but it's certainly true of 'The Way'. For their seventh movie collaboration together, Emilio Estevez and his father, Martin Sheen, have combined their passions for faith and family to tell a story about El Camino de Santiago (The Way of St James), the pilgrimage route to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, northwest Spain, where legend has it the remains of the apostle, Saint James the Great, are buried.
Eight years ago, Martin Sheen and Estevez' son, Taylor, drove along that self-same route, not far from where Sheen's own father was brought up. The young man found love on the journey and now lives there with his family; Sheen always planned to come back and walk the Camino one day. No surprise then that when Estevez came to his father looking to collaborate on a movie project, the Camino experience should have been uppermost in both their minds.
Written and directed by Estevez, 'The Way' begins with a young, free-spirited pilgrim (played by Estevez himself) fatally injuring himself while making the trek on the Camino. Having initially flown to Europe just to collect the body, the boy's conservative, golf-playing country club father (Sheen) decides to honour his son by completing the 800-kilometre journey and depositing his ashes along the way. En route, Sheen finds out a lot about himself, not least through the companions he encounters on his journey of self-realisation.
In lesser hands, this could have been a mawkish, 'Dr Phil' special about people finding themselves; being on a personal road to Damascus, blah, blah, etc. While it's not without its sentimentality, 'The Way' is a sometimes moving, sometimes entertaining tale that combines elements of 'The Wizard of Oz' and 'The Canterbury Tales'. Despite (or maybe because of) the fact that Sheen in real life is as far removed from his screen character as one could possibly be, he delivers a pitch-perfect performance in the central role. His companions along the Camino, a Dutch dude (van Wageningen), an emotionally damaged Canadian (Unger) and a blocked Irish writer (Nesbitt) occasionally veer towards caricature but they do provide an entertaining counterpoint to the main business at hand: a father paying tribute to his son.
On the production front, 'The Way' is beautifully photographed by Juan Miguel Azpiroz Estevez, well paced and features a fine score from Tyler Bates. Estevez shot the movie quickly in an almost guerrilla fashion. There were no trailers, no luxuries and while some of the pilgrims had been informed about the movie project; others clearly hadn't. At various points in the movie you can see the shock on the faces of various trekkers in the background as they suddenly recognise Sheen.
It won't be to everyone's taste, but at a time when our cinema screens are bursting with superheroes and screeching cars, there's room for a simple, reflective tale such as 'The Way'.