The title refers to El Camino de Santiago de Compostela (The Way of St James), one of a collection of ancient pilgrimage routes running throughout Europe, that ends at the cathedral in Galicia, north-west Spain, where the apostle is reputedly laid to rest. Since medieval times, pilgrims have given up the safety of home and experienced the deprivations of the road for the benefit of their immortal souls.
Tom (Martin Sheen), a Californian ophthalmologist and one of the Country Club set, sees the world through very different eyes (perhaps metaphorically referenced by Tom’s profession) to those of his son Daniel (Emilio Estevez), who cannot persuade his father to accompany him walking El Camino. Tom’s complaint that ‘most people don’t have the luxury of leaving it all behind’ turns out to be sadly ironic, when Daniel dies in a storm in the Pyrenees at the start of his 500-mile walk.
Driven by grief and the desire to understand better his free- spirited son, Tom decides to complete the pilgrimage in his son’s stead, taking his ashes with him. Using Daniel’s equipment, Tom sets out on the journey, but soon finds he is not alone. Other ‘damaged’ pilgrims seeking meaning to their lives join him: a Dutchman (Yorick van Wageningen), a Canadian (Deborah Kara Unger) and an Irish writer (James Nesbitt). The film has been referred to as a contemporary Wizard of Oz, with its three flawed characters helping a lost soul find his way home. The hardships of the pilgrimage are internal and external, from locals and walkers, and conflicts that ultimately deliver insight and forgiveness and bring about personal change. The companions create a lifelong bond, and experience the redemptive power of the human journey as the transformative effect of the pilgrimage is detected in Sheen’s character. Tom finally understands the real message that his son embodied: to walk your own Camino, and let it have meaning for you. Travel in a strange land – one equally of the soul – enables Tom to know the difference between ‘choosing a life and living one’.
Small in scale, the film reflects the personal nature of the subject, exploring themes of loss, regret and spiritual rebirth. Particularly resonant in a sometimes morally bankrupt world, it is all the more powerful for refusing to overindulge in the sentimentality of grief. Not overtly religious in tone, the film nevertheless acknowledges the principles of sacrifice and walking a spiritual path to discover ‘the way, the truth and the life’.
Filmed on El Camino de Santiago, the location provides a stunning backdrop to the story. The soundtrack, which includes music by Coldplay, James Taylor and Alanis Morissette, perhaps reflects the distinctions between the dignity of spiritual pilgrimage, an internal voyage, and the earthly physicality of the road.
Estevez reveals he ‘lost’ his own son (Taylor Estevez, Associate Producer) here to marriage and relocation. This is a story of fathers and sons, and the regeneration that comes from knowing who you really are, in every sense.