Tuesday, November 08, 2011

How the Movie "The Way" Might Have Lost its Way

For about twenty years I have been intrigued by the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, a route that pilgrims have been walking for more than 1,000 years to the shrine of St. James the Apostle in Spain. I envied a fellow St. Ann choir member, Kerry McCarthy, a young professor of music at Duke, when I learned that she has walked portions of the camino more than once. Before one choir dinner towards the end of one summer, Kerry gave me one of the tiny silver scallop shells she'd brought back to give away as souvenirs. Scallop shells are a symbol of St. James, and they are traditionally worn by pilgrims along the camino.

About year later, I was visiting Kerry's good friends, Susan and John Altstatt while Kerry was on one of her summer treks along the camino, and the Altstatts showed me a video of Kerry at a fountain along the way that has two faucets, one for water and one for red wine. They had prearranged with Kerry a time when she would be there, and John had figured out a way to capture the video from a web cam over the fountain. So I got to see a grainy black and white snippet of Kerry walking up to that fountain halfway around the world and filling her cup with wine. That is as close I'll ever get to being there, I thought to myself, and I was glad to share vicariously in that bit of the pilgrim experience.*

When I heard about the recent independent movie about the Camino de Santiago, called The Way, I was eager to see it. Emilio Estevez wrote and directed and Martin Sheen, Estevez's father, starred in it. A couple of weeks ago, after I found out that it was on the last day of its theatrical run in the area, I rushed to see it that afternoon. When I had asked the ticket seller about the film on the way in, she told me she hadn't seen it, but she had been told by her friends that it was actually very good.

Sorry to have to say this, but I think it's actually only "pretty good." Like too much of literature and other art these days, this movie is episodic, much like I imagine walking the camino one step after another might be like as an experience. The movie is life-like, but a bit too much like life before it is worked by an artist into art. I was one of five people in the theater.

Since my main reason for seeing the movie was my interest in the pilgrimage, I loved seeing the shots of the road and the places the pilgrims frequent. It's a shame that the run in movie theaters is over, because those beautiful views could not have the same impact on the much-smaller home screen if you wanted to watch it after the movie comes out on DVD.

Aside from the cinematic glimpses of what it must be like to walk the camino, I also like the fact that except for the main characters, non-actors were used for the pilgrims and even a troupe of real gypsies was used to act in a central scene.

Otherwise, I'm disappointed to have to say I didn't get much enjoyment from the actors or the plot. The premise--of a father carrying the ashes of his son with him to complete the pilgrimage that the son had started before his death on his first night out--is interesting and touching.

I liked seeing the pilgrimage route. The scenes are beautiful. But I was left wondering why I felt so unsatisfied. I suspect that my feeling of "what's the point?" might be due to the fact director Estevez tried too hard to not be "religious" or hammer people over the head.

Estevez wanted to make a movie about "spirituality," and not "about religion." I think that might be his mistake. Christ said, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life and no man comes to the Father except through me." Following Christ's teachings and participating in the Sacraments of the Church that is Christ's Body on this earth are the real way. The role of true religion is to tell us the way. Spirituality, as the word is used these days, is self-created religion. Because we are all so prone to self-deception, and because the devil is only too happy to help us rationalize evil as good, a vague spirituality without the guidance of authentic religious dogma cannot reliably lead to the Father, and it is not worth the vapor from which it is created.

Speaking of another kind of vapor, the penultimate scene with the swinging of the world's largest incense burner, the Botafumeiro, at the Pilgrim's Mass at the Cathedral of Santiago at Compostella is compelling. To give you an idea of how big the Botafumeiro is, it takes seven men to swing it. Here's a video that shows Pope Benedict XVI filling the incense burner and then watching it make its magnificent arcs as it swings through the cathedral.

This shot shows the Pope filling the thurible.

The thurible swings past the Pope

A bit of justifiable awe is in order as the thurible swings out over the congregation

Note the seven thurible swingers in the lower left of this photo!

At the end of the movie, The Way, we are supposed to assume that the characters have changed, but I found it hard to tell exactly how they'd changed. The Sheen character started smiling and laughing more as time went on, but he had been smiling and laughing with his golfing buddies back in Ventura CA USA, at the start of the movie during the scene in which Sheen had learned his son was dead.

In interviews, Sheen speaks about his character "getting in touch with his faith," but in the movie we only get a hint that the character might have been praying the rosary during the 500 mile hike ... When they finally arrived at the end of the pilgrimage at the cathedral, the religion-hating Irish writer cried, and the drug-using Dutchman dropped to his knees and then walked on his knees to the statue of St. James. But few other clues are given to what happened in these peoples hearts.

Two characters whose intentions for making the pilgrimage were to quit smoking and to lose weight, but they don't succeed. Why show us that?

And for another example, from the first night of Sheen's character's pilgrimage, we were tantalized by the sexy bad-girl confrontative personna of the woman pilgrim from Canada, but whatever attraction there may have been between her, Sheen, and and between her and the other two male main characters is never acknowledged or resolved. Her teasing confrontational attitude disappeared without us knowing why. And to my mind, some depiction of why none of the three men ever hit on her or why Sheen kept her at arm's length would have perhaps helped to make a real drama out of this movie.

Artistically, the movie is missing the arc of dramatic tension and resolution that is part of classical dramatic form. Estevez claimed in interviews that the movie is like the Wizard of Oz, but that movie had a climax and the characters grew and changed and obtained what they sought after they took the road to Oz, unlike this long, interesting, but ultimately unresolved pilgrimage through French Pyrenees and the northern part of Spain.

*The Wine Fountain was built in 1991 by a vendor and has the following messages: “We are pleased to invite you to drink in moderation. If you wish to take the wine with you, you will have to buy it.” “Pilgrim, if you wish to arrive at Santiago full of strength and vitality, have a drink of this great wine and make a toast to happiness.”

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