Writer-director Emilio Estevez and Martin Sheen take to the road
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
The pilgrimage has many names – El Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James is the rough English translation), which gets shortened to El Camino or The Way – and the route that leads to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain, where the remains of St. James the Apostle are buried, has no fixed starting point. Historically, the largest contingent of pilgrims have come from France, beginning along the French border or the French side of the Pyrenees, covering close to 800 kilometers (a shorter route, at 227 km is the Portuguese Way that starts at a cathedral in northern Portugal). The journey can take weeks or months; most traverse it on foot, but there are riders who go by bicycle or by the more traditional means of either horseback or by donkey.
Stories of conversion along the road dominate our culture and Emilio Estevez has tapped into that with The Way, weaving the personal and the mythic strands into a strong spiritual cord that engages and binds viewers. A storm, quite literally, takes the life of Daniel Avery (Estevez) on his very first day in the Pyrenees. Word reaches his father Tom (Martin Sheen), a comfortably numb doctor who has recently lost his wife and fears that his son, a doctoral candidate putting his quest for a Ph.D. on hold to immerse himself in the world, has lost his way and Tom gets swept up and dropped in France where, after a bit of contemplation, he embarks on a journey to walk The Way for Daniel.
Tom seeks to withdraw into his sadness and loss, but reluctantly encounters a ragtag band of travelers — a jovial Dutchman named Joost (Yorick van Wageningen) who fears his size is cutting his life and his key relationships short, a steely Canadian (Deborah Kara Unger) with secret wounds that force her to erect barriers to keep everyone at bay and an Irish writer (James Nesbitt) wandering among hay bales, plagued by writer’s block — who become his companions and aid him in his increasingly magical quest. There is no wizard lurking behind the curtain, but each of these pilgrims finds their own way.
For Estevez and Sheen, the journey began in 2003, when Sheen, while on hiatus from The West Wing, found himself driving parts of El Camino with his 19-year-old grandson and assistant Taylor (Emilio’s son). As a self-professed practicing Catholic, the pilgrimage was one that spoke to Sheen from a more romantic standpoint, but it evolved into a journey into his family’s past that would eventually come full circle, a story he shared during his return home to Dayton for a special screening of the film on September 19 at the Dayton Art Institute.
“We were in my sister’s apartment in Madrid (like Sheen, she’s a Dayton native), and she suggested we take a car and drive the Camino for future reference,” said Sheen. “So, we did and we got to this place, which is 500 kilometers from Santiago and we stayed in a country B&B. We were part of a pilgrim’s supper that night with all the people and the daughter of the owner, a very beautiful girl came in to serve the meal and Taylor looked at her and she looked at him and they are still together. They are married now and they live in Barbos, that area in the film where the boy steals my bag. Emilio was working on Bobby at that point, but once he finished, he began to see the possibility in this narrative, the story of fathers and sons and family.”
Estevez chimed in, offering this quietly fitting coda to the story: “Essentially, you have four generations connected in this film. First, of course, is my grandfather (the film is dedicated to Francesco Estevez), from the north of Spain, coming to America, having my father, who had me, and then me having Taylor. Taylor going back to Spain and all of us following him back to the spirit of my grandfather whose village was about 80 kilometers from Santiago.”
And so it seems all roads lead to home.
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com.