The Way: A Pilgrimage of the Heart

way_poster3_tcMartin Sheen plays “Tom” – an ophthalmologist from California who travels to  France to  retrieve the body of his now dead son  Daniel Avery ( who has died on the first day of his planned Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in a storm in the Pyrannes).  But Tom ends up doing the pilgrimage himself (also known as “the Way of St. James”) to Galicia (Spain).

One of Sheen’s sons, Emilio Estevez, wrote the screenplay (from the book by Jack Hitt [1] ) and directed the film. He also has spot appearances as Daniel Avery, Tom’s son. Renee Estevez, Sheen’s daughter, also acts in the film.

The film opens on the golf course where Tom quite noticeably doesn’t want to walk a few feet to make his next golf shot, preferring to golf cart his way instead. Moments later he receives the call informing him of his son’s tragic death and he quickly leaves the course with no explanation.

This is indicative of Tom for the first half of the film. A man of few words who is used to making up his mind and pretty much everyone else can go to hell – he doesn’t care.

When Tom arrives in St. Jean Pied de Port (France) he has to deal with memories of conflicts with Daniel and a decision. Daniel’s life had been about engagement it would seem – and choosing to experience the world rather than just study it.  The two of them had conflicts over this. Tom decides rather stubbornly that he will walk the pilgrims trail to the Cathedral of  Santiago de Compostela in Galicia and plans to spread his son’s ashes along the way.

It is a film primarily about “compassion” – the ability to “come alongside.” It starts with the police captain just as his journey starts. Tom, very aloof, is headed in the wrong direction for the pilgrimage, the captain stops him and says “Tom, I too have lost a child,” This stops Tom and makes him reconsider the captain. This is important because the captain tells him he is going the wrong way.

This is just the first incident of many that will begin to change Tom and de-layer him and re-humanize him along the pilgrim’s trail.

Previously he had met Joost (played by Yorick van Wageningen of the Netherlands), a gregarious man from Amsterdam who simply wishes to lose weight. He is as loose-lipped as Tom is tight. He befriends Tom whether he likes it or not, meeting up with him later on the Way of St. James.

At first Tom is slow…he is the last one to make it to the Inn the first night. This changes as he becomes more resolute.

When Tom meets Sarah (played by Canada’s superb actress Deborah Kara Unger – who is reminiscent here of Ava Gardner as Maxine Faulk in Night of the Iguana) things do not go well. She is angry with a massive chip on her shoulder and used to attention. Tom doesn’t care at all. He simply walks off. She attempts to apologize the next morning but he is still aloof and remains so through much of the first half of the film.

Tom is a classic Californian. He is used to living in a cocoon of sorts.

On his own a bit later on the first real crisis point occurs when he takes off his pack at a bridge and it drops accidently into the river below. Frantic, he runs and follows it from the side of the river before finally diving in to retrieve it. He does so only when it becomes obvious it is his only choice. It is a decisive moment where Tom has to act.

Cold, wet, and tired he hauls his gear up the bank and makes camp. His well-contained world has been busted-up a bit.

The next day, Tom comes into town and meets up with Joost and Sarah again who meet each other for the first time. Tom is still distanced, noticeably picking up his pace – walking alone.

Tom meets a priest on the road with many other pilgrims (Joe Torrenueva). It was difficult for me to see exactly what he gives Tom – perhaps a rosary. Tom plays a lapsed Catholic, but it is well known that Sheen is quite an active Roman Catholic himself. Estevez describes the film as “pro-people, pro-life, not anti-anything”[2]

When they meet the Irish poet Jack (Irishman James Nesbitt) who does a marvelous monologue on “the road,” then complaining of “writer’s block” asks if he can tag along.

Not long after, one of the three last crucial events (the first of four being the fallen pack into the river) occurs when Sarah, trying to see what is in the box Tom carries, slugs him when he grabs her arm. It’s a shocking moment. Later we learn that she had been in an abusive marriage- and had terminated the pregnancy of her daughter – not wanting to bring her into the same potential abuse.

Beyond the politics of the issue (which people rush too immediately into, it seems) I watched a scene played out that I have witnessed many times in my life – the deep regret that women carry with them over aborted children. It is a wound that I have consistently seen with no exceptions. It seems well depicted in this film for Sarah says she still hears her daughter’s voice.

The film treats it non-politically (which is truly wise). Tom turns and engages her for the first time really and says he is sorry that she lost her child. She says she is sorry he lost his. It is a serious and touching moment on their journey.

07WAY-SUB-articleLargeFrom then on they both seem to walk alongside each other with some very real compassion.

Estevez said that he borrowed heavily from The Wizard of Oz in a thematic way.[3] It seems clear though that Tom is not inviting anyone to join him – they invite themselves or rather attach themselves to Tom and his journey whether he likes it or not. This will play out significantly later in the film in dramatic fashion. But for now, it seems clear that Tom is Dorothy – a stranger in a strange land (to him). The only real difference on his journey is that there are no external enemies – only enemies within.

For Tom – this pilgrimage is one of being broken down chunks at a time only to be rebuilt into something different and new.

The third significant “act” comes when they reach the next town and purchase four bottles of wine. Tom gets drunk and his resentments boil over. He goes on a rant – verbally taking apart his companions. First the poet (Jack) – who he calls a “bore,” and then accuses of not being a “true pilgrim,” calling him a fraud. Then he turns to the Dutchman and dresses him down. He is angry, drunk and falls down. The police come and arrest him.

As they haul him off he is shouting and singing “God bless America” doing his best to embody the classic “Ugly American” image. There is a prefiguring of this when he is introduced earlier as an American in a village and they throw food at him and start-up with the “Star-Spangled Banner” – all in good fun.

The Irish poet bails him out the next morning (using his credit card – which Tom had berated him for using) and from this point on in the film they really become a noticeable unit. They no longer walk apart – or at least with Tom apart. They often walk four abreast or in a tight line. They have become companions on the Way of St. James now that Tom has dropped all pretenses. The road has humbled him – he has regained a greater sense of humanity and connection.

I believe the fourth major event in Tom’s transformation comes when his backpack (with his son’s ashes) is stolen by a Gypsy boy. They chase the boy into the Gypsy part of town where all hope is lost. Joost compels Tom to leave saying that it is hopeless and dangerous.

Back in the main part of town Tom despairs and plans to return home without finishing the pilgrimage. It is then that a remarkable thing happens. The young boy’s father (Ishmael, played by Antonio Gil) has discerned what has happened and has brought the boy and the pack (undisturbed) to the bar to return it. Better still he invites Tom and his entourage to come and dine and “make merry” with his Gypsy community that evening. To this man, it is a matter of honor (and a matter of faith as we see him “cross” himself quickly). Tom and his friends are allowed into this somewhat secretive and highly relational community. It is a world away from the cocoon-ish lifestyle employed by people in California. Tom is being challenged on many levels.

The next day the boy’s father makes his son carry Tom’s pack for him all the way to the outskirts of the province. Tom objects but the father is insistent that his son do this. It is a scene vaguely reminiscent of Robert DeNiro’s carrying his burden up the falls for a time in The Mission. Tom’s burden is temporarily carried by the boy whose sin almost stopped his pilgrimage – but in so doing the boy’s penance may be a part of his salvation.

The father – who is also mystical – tells Tom that after reaching the intended goal of the Cathedral – that he should continue on to Muxia, “and the sea” to spread the rest of his sons ashes there. That it will be good for Tom and his son.

Tom has an intense discussion with the Gypsy Ismael who tells him he needs to travel to Muxia to complete his pilgrimage.

Tom has an intense discussion with the Gypsy Ismael who tells him he needs to travel to Muxia to complete his pilgrimage.

“Ishmael, I am not a very religious man,” says Tom.

“Religion has nothing to do with this, nothing at all,” says Ishmael (one wonders about the choice of that name).

It is here that I should mention the soundtrack. Normally one wouldn’t think that Alanis Morrisette’s song Thank U – one couched in Eastern mysticism would work in a scene moving towards Catholic mysticism – but it really does in the overall context of the film up till this point. It is really a near perfect song at this juncture in the film:

How ’bout me not blaming you for everything

How ’bout me enjoying the moment for once

How ’bout how good it feels to finally forgive you

How ’bout grieving it all one at a time


Thank you India

Thank you terror

Thank you disillusionment

Thank you frailty

Thank you consequence

Thank you thank you silence


The moment I let go of it was the moment

I got more than I could handle

The moment I jumped off of it

Was the moment I touched down[4]


Tom is in this process as he journeys down the pilgrims trail. What started as a way of perhaps honoring his son – or trying to understand him better – has now become Tom’s own pilgrimage – but in a more and more tightly knit group or community of four.

the-way-movie-martin-sheenAs the song plays you can see Tom is no longer aloof. He is huggable, smiling and stays close. The day before they arrive in Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Tom splurges on rooms at a nice hotel for everyone. One by one – late at night – they each show up at his room. Soon, as they have been all day, they are all together.

Tom has already changed his tune with the poet/writer. In the beginning nothing was “any of his business.” Now he is free to write what he will – but Tom is hopeful it will be the truth.

They stop at one point where there is a pole and a huge pile of stones left by previous pilgrim travelers. This is one of many traditions of the pilgrimage and apparently the belief was “that by placing a stone on the pile, [the person] …would be granted a wish.”[5]

Sarah’s wish is rather agnostic, but Tom’s is that of a lapsed Catholic making his way back to a living faith.

Who are the various characters in light of The Wizard of Oz?  I don’t think anything like an exact  correlation can really be found. I think it was a formative idea that Estevez worked off of. But If I was to hazard a guess, I would say Joost is “The Cowardly Lion” (extroverted and kind but lacking backbone), Sarah the “Tin Man” (a damaged heart), and Jack is the “Scarecrow” (he is inherently brilliant but uses his mind to write travel books and has writer’s block for anything really expansive).

As they enter the Cathedral we already know that the poet (Jack) doesn’t like churches. But he knows that the posture in the Cathedral of St. James is one of coming on your knees. As the one most likely to be the Scarecrow…he holds off – perhaps out of skepticism. But in the end as the giant censer swings and fills the grand cathedral he hits his knees and inches inside.

At each major township along the pilgrim's trail when they check in they receive a stamp marking their journey's progress until they get their final stamp at the Cathedral.

At each major township along the pilgrim’s trail when they check in they receive a stamp marking their journey’s progress until they get their final stamp at the Cathedral.

It is things like this (and pilgrimages and art) that most of us Protestants do not understand – many choosing to live in the long shadow of people like the humorless and unimaginative John Calvin. But for those who take a more “worldly” Christian view – meaning simply that the Church is much larger and deeper – all of this is ours and to be celebrated.

After the mass and the blessing at the Cathedral, they are “given their compostela certificates, the official paper that certified their completion of the pilgrimage.”[6] Many of the stamps they receive along the pilgrim’s way have the form of a scallop shell worked into them as the scallop – an early Christian symbol – is also:

320px-Carlo_Crivelli_064the traditional emblem of James, son of Zebedee, and is popular with pilgrims on the Way of St James to the apostle’s shrine at Santiago de Compostela in Galicia (Spain). Medieval Christians making the pilgrimage to his shrine often wore a scallop shell symbol on their hat or clothes. The pilgrim also carried a scallop shell with him, and would present himself at churches, castles, abbeys etc., where he could expect to be given as much sustenance as he could pick up with one scoop. Probably he would be given oats, barley, and perhaps beer or wine. Thus even the poorest household could give charity without being overburdened.[7]


When receiving his certificate Tom is asked about the pilgrimage and he says “we walked…” then corrects himself and says “I walked.” It is a telling moment for Tom is now a part of an “us.” And when they are sitting around after and it is time to disband looks are traded (no words) and it is simply understood that they will all continue on together to the sea in Muxia.

Early on in the film, Tom had tried to sort of “order” the police officer to accompany him on the pilgrimage. The man cared – but ignored the arrogant directive. Now, without words, Tom has engendered real love and respect out of humility from his companions. They want to see him through to the end of his journey.

Tom has the man who is providing the certification for his now completed pilgrimage change the name from his to Daniel’s. He has done the walk in Daniel’s stead. At Muxia he has an experience where Daniel stands beside him.

“I don’t have anything to take back,” he says to him.

“Yeah you do,” is Daniel’s ghostly reply.

Then Tom distributes what are left of Daniel’s ashes on the rocks by the sea.

It is not a sentimental film, nor commercial or formulaic. There are no tearful goodbyes. We never see the other three after they leave Tom alone at the rocks near the sea. At the end we only see Tom moving towards us with a seemingly clearer perception and movement in his “way.” It also seems that he came to France, and finally Spain, as an utter outsider and an “Ugly American” but at the end of the film his attire marks him as a more natural inhabitant of the region – or at least he doesn’t stand out quite so much. In fact he is marked as belonging by two well-known symbols – the walking staff that is sticking up out of the back of his pack, and the metallic scallop shell pendant hanging down from around his neck symbolizing his completing the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.

He has received compassion and learned to give it – as they all walked alongside each other – the root meaning of the word.





[1] taken April 21, 2016.

[2] Primary sources quoted in Wikipedia article. as found on April 21, 2016.

[3] Emilio Estevez and Martin Sheen on Faith and Filming The Way, as found on April 21, 2016.

[4], as found on April 21, 2016.

[5] Pilgrimage to Santiago De Compostella: Rituals and Traditions, as found on April 21, 2016.

[6] Ibid.

[7] The Shell of Saint James, as found on April 21, 2016.


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