This has been an unusually good run for religion at the movies. Dramatizing spiritual experience is notoriously difficult, and filmmakers tend to look for easier paths — the anthropologist’s condescension, the atheist’s frank hostility, or else the treacly piety that infuses many well-intentioned attempts to bring faith to the screen. But in the last twelve months, moviegoers have enjoyed two extraordinary exceptions to this rule: the French drama Of Gods and Men, with its lyrical and liturgical portrait of monks facing death at the hands of Islamist fanatics in Algeria, and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, a soaring, yearning reimagining of Genesis and Job.
The Way, a new film about modern pilgrims walking the ancient Camino de Santiago, isn’t quite in the same league as Malick and the monks. But at its best, it belongs in the same artistic category — the cinema of epiphany, which aims at what the Jesuit James Martin, writing on The Tree of Life, called the sense of “living inside a prayer.” Directed by Emilio Estevez and starring his father, Martin Sheen, it’s also one of the more rawly personal movies you’ll see this year, since its portrayal of a bereaved father mourning the death of his estranged child cannot help evoking the Sheen family’s real-life travails, and the kind of living death that Martin’s other, more famous son has recently embraced.
Sheen plays Tom, a country-clubbing ophthalmologist and Christmas-and-Easter Catholic who’s summoned to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France, to recover the body of his globetrotting son, Daniel (played by Estevez, in flashbacks). The younger man died in a freak storm on the first day of the pilgrim’s walk to Santiago de Compostela, and his father decides to take the same route himself, carrying Daniel’s ashes and scattering them at various points along the way.
Like most pilgrims, he doesn’t end up walking alone. By journey’s end, he’s been joined by a gregarious Dutchman (Yorick van Wageningen), a cooler-than-thou Canadian woman (Deborah Kara Unger), and a self-important Irish travel writer (James Nesbitt). All three claim to have purely secular reasons for their pilgrimage: The Dutchman wants to lose his ample paunch, the Canadian wants to quit smoking, and the Irishman — who’s been commissioned to write a book on the Camino — has a dreadful case of writer’s block. But by the time they reach Santiago de Compostela, it’s clear that their journey has served a religious purpose as well, offering them penance and catharsis, a glimpse of the numinous and a revelation of their own all-too-human brokenness.
Here The Way makes an interesting companion piece to Of Gods and Men. The French film focused on modern men who made the least modern-seeming choice imaginable, committing themselves fully to the religious life, obedient to their vows even to the point of death. The Way focuses on modern men and women whose attitude toward faith is more characteristic of our age: It’s something to dabble in and draw from and turn to therapeutic ends, rather than a reason to fall down in awe and then rise and change your life.
The movie’s point — and it’s a good one — is that even people who approach religious practice in this utilitarian and dilettantish mode can end up being profoundly changed by their experience, and even born anew from it. (The Spirit blows where it will . . .) But the filmmakers are clearly a bit nervous about alienating viewers who might be turned off by the specifically Catholic content of the Camino, and so they sometimes bend a bit too far backward to prove their non-dogmatic bona fides. “This has nothing to do with religion,” a wise Gypsy assures Tom at one point, as they discuss their relationship with their sons — a line that seems to have been inserted just to reassure the “spiritual, not religious” demographic that they aren’t being secretly indoctrinated.
In reality, religion — and more particularly, Catholicism — has everything to do with why The Way packs both an artistic and a metaphysical punch. Both the aesthetic and the spiritual realms thrive on specificity: on iconography that refers to something in particular, on moral frameworks that provide guidance for hard cases as well as general admonitions. Without these specifics, there would be no Santiago de Compostela, no Camino for the doubting modern pilgrims of The Way to walk, no sins to be forgiven, and no one to offer absolution.
The weakest moments in The Way come when the filmmakers try to evade this reality, abandoning Catholic imagery and ritual for something more diffuse and New Age (scattering ashes in a pounding surf, etc.). The movie is at its strongest when it recognizes what kind of journey it’s really depicting: not a self-indulgent spiritual vacation in the vein of Eat Pray Love, but a harder, truer story about the encounter between rootlessness and rootedness, the transitory and the eternal, modern angst and ancient faith.