(PG) Martin Sheen, Debra Kara Unger, Emilio Estevez
The old adage about the journey being more important than the destination applies to this film.
Directed by Emilio Estevez and starring his father Martin Sheen (in one of his most moving roles), this film is a very personal spiritual journey of discovery and transformation.
Although it isn’t specifically religious, with Sheen’s character describing himself as a lapsed Catholic, its talk of pilgrimage and the many conversations of what this means to the travellers on the Way of St James give the film a quietly spiritual and reflective tone.
Sheen plays Tom, a California eye doctor with a vision problem when it comes to son Daniel (Estevez, seen in flashbacks), who has dropped out of grad school to undertake a walking journey along the Pyrenees, known variously as the Camino de Santiago or the Way of St James.
When Tom suggests he think about dropping out of study to pursue this travel experience, Daniel simply retorts, “You don’t choose a life Dad. You live one.”
When Daniel is killed by a freak storm before reaching Spain, Tom flies to France, where a friendly police captain (Tchéky Karyo) conveniently recounts the history of the ancient pilgrim’s route. The quiet and grief-stricken man gathers his son’s ashes, as well as his backpack, and spontaneously decides to finish the tour. Seemingly without religious or any other motivation he begins the journey for reasons known only to him.
Along the way Tom spreads Daniel’s ashes in an attempt to honour what Daniel had started. On the journey Tom is joined by three pilgrims, all travelling for different reasons: an emotionally wounded Canadian woman (Deborah Kara Unger), a Dutchman (Yorick van Wageningen) trying to get fit, and a chatty Irish travel writer (James Nesbitt) with writer’s block. Their motivations are revealed slowly as they travail the winding track and the time spent with the varied travellers is what gives the film its rhythm and nuance.
Occasionally the film has a misstep. The introduction of Nesbitt’s character to the group is a little over the top and grates with the quiet dialogue and contemplation of other parts of the film but his character is there to document the journey and is the catalyst for Tom finally revealing the reason for his pilgrimage.
Ultimately the film is a very personal father and son reflection. And it is obvious it is a gift from son (director Estevez) to father (Sheen). The scenes of Tom’s grief at the revelation of Daniel’s death are restrained and understated, giving the film grounding in reality. Sheen’s performance is excellent as he gradually reveals a man who gets reacquainted with feelings long kept hidden. Sheen is the film’s bruised heart ready to be healed.
This isn’t an action film. It’s a wonderfully quiet reflection on the meaning of life’s journey; a truly transformational and moving experience and a journey worth taking.