The Way (2010) is about journeys, and it would short-cut would-be viewers’ experience of the film to say too much about the four main characters. To watch the film is to journey with Tom, Joost, Sarah and Jack along the Way of St. James (El camino de Santiago). Collectively, they have habits to break, breaks to heal, burdens to lighten. None expects a miracle, but there is among them a small, but palpable hopefulness. This weaves throughout and brings them closer together.
The Way it is not a documentary, but in writing the screenplay, Emilio Estevez adapts stories from Jack Hitt’s non-fiction Off the Road: A Modern-Day Walk Down the Pilgrim’s Route into Spain. Except for Tom, there is little exposition about the main characters. Knowledge about their lives before we meet them is limited, and divulged only at the pace of their walking. We grow to know them as they discover each other, and through each other themselves, as well as, ultimately, deeper reasons for their journey.
The film’s setting is a Christian pilgrimage route through France and Spain dating from the middle ages. However, none of the four main characters brings an explicit faith on their journey. The central character, Tom (Martin Sheen), begins his walk as a non-practicing Roman Catholic, and is clearly non-plussed by the enthusiastic orientation he gets from a devout French policeman. Or, as ‘Jack from Ireland’ (James Nesbitt) puts it, “The church has a lot to answer for where I’m from.”
Although explicitly religious rituals are not foregrounded in The Way, shared meals and drink definitely are. Food and drink are central to the many scenes of hospitality. Hoteliers offer basic accommodations for a modest fee, and a wide range of pilgrims share meals (sometimes elaborate), as well as encouragement and support (including but not limited to a rosary and some sleeping pills). In various settlements along the camino, meals and conversations are well provisioned with wine. Not only does wine-fueled talk animate some scenes, but it also triggers a turning point for the group of four, as they shift from mere fellow-travelers towards becoming friends. As they walk and grow together, Tom, Joost, Sarah and Jack come across as wonderfully regular people. None claims a grandiose purpose for their walking the camino. They are merely and deeply human: by turns cranky and generous, curious and doubtful, excited and weary. They are, on the one hand, battered and broken, struggling under the burdens of their lives, losses, and limitations. And, on the other hand, they are committed,persistent, and longing to be more whole. In all, it makes for each of them a buen camino.