Martin Sheen in 'The Way'

Did ‘The Way’ Get the Camino Pilgrimage Right?

Author Virginia Schmidt revisits her April 2018 journey on the French route of the Camino de Santiago, as she reviews the film 'The Way,' directed by Emilio Estevez and starring his father, Martin Sheen.

As pilgrim stamps populate the screen during the opening credits of Emilio Estevez’s film, ‘The Way,’ tears fill my eyes.

Maybe it’s too soon, I think: I haven’t been back from my own pilgrimage along the same route for long enough yet. Heartache radiates out to my limbs and my breathing is shallow and fast. But, looking over at my mom’s eager face glowing in the screen light beside me, I realize it is, on the contrary, too late: We’ve already started the movie.

Since she didn’t walk The Way with me, Mom is keen to peer through a 120-minute cinematic window into my life-changing excursion. Whether the film will render a true depiction of the transformative pilgrimage, we shall see.

The film, The Way, directed by Emilio Estevez and starring his father, Martin Sheen, was released in 2011. I walked that same Way, to complete the French route of the Camino de Santiago, in April of this year, 2018.  

I began my Camino – just as Emilio Estevez does in the movie – in Saint Jean Pied de Port, France, and completed the most popular route of the ancient pilgrimage 800 kilometers (500 miles, for my fellow Americans) and 30 days later at the Cathedral de Santiago near the westernmost coast of Spain.

Emilio (Daniel, in the movie) begins the Camino, but he dies along the Way before he can finish it. It is his father, Martin (Tom), who makes it to Santiago, spreading his son’s ashes all across Spain along the Way.

Virginia Schmidt on a park bench in the city of Santiago after completing the Camino Frances.
Virginia on a park bench in the city of Santiago after completing the Camino Frances.

I first heard about the movie The Way while already well into walking the Way. Fellow pilgrims would call out references like, “Oh, I think this is the bridge where he drops his pack into the river!” comparing the story in the film with our experience of it.   

And, for me in particular, having wasted no time establishing myself as the token “writer” walking the Way, many peregrinos delighted in drawing lines between me and James Nesbitt, who plays Jack – an Irish writer walking the Camino to cure his writer’s block. “Oh, you’re walking to overcome your writer’s block, as well, then?!” or “Look, she has her notebook out! Are you going to publish a book about the Camino, too?”

(Admittedly, I hope to) … 🙂

I wipe away a last deluge of tears as the movie ends with Tom spreading the last of Daniel’s ashes in the sea at the “End of the World,” and turn to my mom. She asks if the movie captured the Camino.

“Yes,” I tell her, blowing my nose. “It definitely captured the spirit of the Camino. It showed how the most important part of the pilgrimage is the people you meet, and how they become your family along the Way. They help teach you the lessons you came there to learn. It captures how you realize, when you finish the Camino, that the journey you set out on has, in fact, only just begun.

Mom smiles and touches the bracelet with the scallop shell (the symbol of the Camino) that I brought back for her from Santiago.

“They did miss one thing, though,” I add. “Not a single scene about blisters in the entire movie. And it would be hard to convey just how colossal an omission that is.”

So, yes, watch The Way for a taste of the essence of The Camino de Santiago. But if you really want to find your Way, well, you’ll have to walk it. And I promise you, it’s worth the blisters.

Toasting to passing the halfway point on the Camino following Sahagún
Toasting to passing the halfway point on the Camino following Sahagún
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