“We’re all looking for someone,” sang The Moody Blues back in 1968’s “Dr. Livingstone, I Presume” off the classic “journey” album In Search of the Lost Chord (I use “journey” rather than “trip,” which, when referring to 1968, is a word one uses advisedly). When we think of spiritual journeys, we often think of it in the context of a search for God, but it doesn’t always have to be. Case in point: the Emilio Estevez film The Way, showing this weekend at the Saratoga Film Forum. The Way is a classic “road movie,” a genre that long predates actual movies, and illustrates, through its four main characters, that we are all on our own, respective, individual journeys. From The Aeneid and The Odyssey, to The Canterbury Tales, to The Wizard of Oz, to Easy Rider, to…well, even to It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World…we’re all looking for someone…or something.
The Way takes place along El Camino de Santiago, or The Way of St. James, a popular pilgrimage route to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain, where it is believed that the remains of the apostle St. James are buried. Originally a trade route in the pre-Christian era, The Way became a popular Christian pilgrimage route starting in the 8th century and even today draws walkers from around the world. In fact, The Way was filmed on location, and does feature many actual pilgrims.
However, “The Way”—singular—is a bit of a misnomer. There are actually a variety of routes that are collectively known as “The Way of St James,” depending upon where you are starting out. And tradition has it that “The Way” starts at one’s own doorstep. So even in the context of an ancient tradition, we all have our own, individual journey.
In The Way, Tom’s (Martin Sheen) journey begins in Los Angeles. He’s had an adversarial relationship with his son Daniel (Emilio Estevez). Daniel was a wanderer, and Tom felt his son’s life lacked focus. (See, Tom is an ophthalmologist, so he wouldfind a lack of focus objectionable…) Daniel, on his own journey, sets out to walk The Way of St. James, and is killed en route during a storm in the Pyrenees. Wracked with guilt, Tom sets out to collect the body, has it cremated, and decides to himself walk The Way in tribute to his late son, scattering Daniel’s ashes along the way.
Along The Way, Tom reluctantly joins up with three other pilgrims, each on his or her own, decidedly secular journey—or so they say. The Dutchman Joost (Yorick van Wageningen; I bet he got “Alas, poor Yorick” a lot) is walking The Way as to lose weight for his brother’s wedding; Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger) is a Canadian chain smoker who vows to break the habit once she gets to the end of the trip; and Jack (James Nesbitt) is an Irish writer trying to break his writer’s block, and tries using his fellow walkers’ journeys as fodder.
As befits a road movie—and characterizing it as such is not intended to belittle or trivialize it—the journey and the sharing of stories become more important than the destination. What do the characters ultimately find? The film may seem frustratingly mum on that—but that’s exactly the point. What do any of us on our own personal journeys find? Or, by the time we’ve found it, does it even matter?
The Way as a movie also had its own unique journey. Inspired by Emilio Estevez’s son Taylor, who had driven the length of The Way with his grandfather, the film did not have a lavish budget, and shooting on location required using a small crew and only available—that is, natural—lighting; nighttime scenes were shot using literally candles and firelight. After its release, it also did not have a lavish promotional budget, but it eventually became a rave success, initially on college campuses, by way of word-of-mouth buzz.
As you watch The Way, think about whether would you ever make that kind of journey. What would you hope to find? Or would you just not worry about it and “take it as it comes”? And what kind of journey are you on now?