Judging by last week's reviews, The Way, Emilio Estevez's new film about pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago, is the latest Rorschach test for journalists who aren't sure what to do with religion if it's not tied to politics. In the 35 years since Jimmy Carter's election, reporters have learned to knead and flatten believers' concerns while spinning leaders' positions into political dross. The only saving grace is that no one's spared. Just ask Obama, Palin or even John McCain.
But if it's not serving as a political freak show, religion gives most reporters the heebie-jeebies. Case in point—most news outlets gave less space to reviewing an elegant if understated meditation on what it means to be human than to a mediocre robo-scifi beat 'em up or a disappointing teen road trip.
The Camino de Santiago has been a pilgrimage site for at least a millennium. Its terminus, the Cathedral of Santiago in Santiago de Compostela, was said to be St James' burial place, and pilgrims believed that walking the route would bring forgiveness for their sins. In recent years, the trek has attracted men and women of all faiths (or none) who see that the journey itself—450 miles in Spain alone—as a spiritual calling.
Estevez conceived of The Way as a vehicle for his father, but he also wanted to explore spirituality in a contemporary context where a dark night of the soul might culminate in a small-town Spanish jail. The movie tells the story of Tom Avery, a California ophthalmologist who travels to France to pick up the remains of his son, who died on the Camino. Surprising even himself, Tom decides to make the trip with his son's ashes. He is accompanied by a quirky entourage whose not-so-endearing tics remind him that hell, and maybe even heaven, is other people.
Making a movie about the small interior shifts that occur during a long, arduous hike could be a recipe for disaster. It's easy to imagine directors who might externalize the spiritual process with lurid visions, haunting ghosts and moody weather. But Estevez trusts in his actors, the scenery, an apt musical score and the depiction of minute changes over time—a knowing glance, a shared drink, a soft word—to convey the opening to self and others that occurs en route.
The film offers no easy answers or pat resolutions, and its quiet dignity underscores the authenticity of its subject. Most spiritual struggles are solitary, and many epiphanies are humble. There's no raging conflict, no tumultuous changes and not a burning bush in sight, just a quiet awareness that one can be a little more than what seemed initially possible and that all we have is each other. (This is a spiritual film, not a religious one.)
The Way ought to be judged on its own terms—not seen as “a personal project” or an “inspirational” film or a small movie. It's a smart and thoughtful attempt to depict the ineffable and to remind viewers that—headlines notwithstanding—real news occurs every day in the small gestures of each individual life. Now try reporting that.