Yesterday I had the opportunity to watch a preview of ‘The Way,’ a film written, directed and produced by Emilio Estevez, who also takes a cameo role as the son of his real-life father, Martin Sheen. Sheen plays Tom, whose comfortable and successful life is disrupted when he receives news of his son Daniel’s accidental death while walking the Camino de Santiago – or Way of St James – pilgrim route. Tom flies to France in order to bring his son home, but on arrival finds himself needing to find out why Daniel had set out on the route at all. Changing his plans, he sets out to walk the route himself, carrying his son’s ashes. Along the way, three other pilgrims are drawn alongside him, their stories intertwining.
This is a beautiful film, slow – pilgrim pace – gentle, moving; a film touched with sadness and humour; a love story – not a romance, but the at-times-awkward love between a father and son. The tale that unfolds explores the challenge Daniel left his father, that “You don’t choose a life, you live one.” This is not a fatalistic statement, nor one that absolves us from responsibility – as Tom at first mistakes it for – but, rather, a recognition that in the very choices we make in order to have the kind of life we want we may very well end up merely existing, with life passing us by. Or, to put it another way, if our choices don’t lead us into the bread-and-wine-and-fish experience of life in its fullness, if our choices ensnare us as observers rather than participants, what worth were they? We can protect a life that is ... lifeless, or we can lose a lifeless existence in search of something deeper.
As the pilgrims walk the Camino, we hear the stories they tell to justify their journey to others; the truer stories they choose to carry alone; and the truest stories they struggle to face. As they walk, through the process of walking together, each of the pilgrims experience change, in ways they neither expected nor sought to create. As they arrive at their destinations, each one also comes to terms with things about themselves: things they discover don’t need to change in the way they thought or hoped or expected – removed, resolved, brought to an end – but need to be carried onward in such a way that pain is continually being transformed into beauty.
As ever, it is a joy to watch Martin Sheen at his craft. But story-of-the-film aside, I was also touched deeply by the story of the making of this film: that here was a thing of beauty created by a father and a son working together, by a father and son who had clearly walked a journey together. It left me wanting to walk a camino – not necessarily the Camino – yes; but more, it left me thinking about what thing of beauty I might create with my children. I don’t know what that will be, but my instinct is that it will only be discovered on the way, in saying ‘yes’ to the challenging invitation in every moment, good or ill, to choose to be alive.