October has been a good month for Catholics in film. Not just one, but two films that were made by Catholics and about Catholics have made it to wide release. “The Way” is one of these films and is currently showing at three Austin area theaters.
About the Film
The main character in the movie is El Camino de Santiago – The Way of Saint James. Okay, yes there is a big name actor who is the headliner. However, the movie was filmed from start to finish in Spain on the real Camino and truly captures its beauty and personality. When I walked away from the film, that’s what weighed on my heart most.
Tradition holds that El Camino is the pilgrimage route to the burial place of St. James’ remains in the city of Santiago de Compostela, Spain. The pilgrimage technically begins from your own home, but there are several common Ways depending on your starting point. The most popular is The French Way starting at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and extending twenty five miles to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, and this is the route the film follows.
The plot line as made out in the trailer is pretty straightforward. A man named Tom (played by Martin Sheen) makes a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela because he grieving the loss of his only son Daniel (Emilio Estevez) who died in an accident on his first day on El Camino. Along the way, Tom joins up with three other pilgrims who are also hoping to accomplish some kind of peace by walking The Way.
The Film’s Theology (Spoiler Alert!)
While Tom’s journey does lead him from point A to point B, it leads him further AWAY from the fullness that is Catholicism. There are a few reasons I feel this is the case. The first is the film’s portrayal of the Virgin Mary. A priest gives Tom a rosary with the intention to help him spiritually. When Tom runs into the priest later on, he attempts to return the rosary, saying that it helped him. However, Tom is never seen praying it. The only time you see rosaries is in pretty scenic shots, along with statues of Mary. For those who don’t already have a devotion to Mary or the rosary and know otherwise, they appear to be nothing more than talismans.
The second is how the Cathedral and St. James are downplayed. Rather than a place of prayer, the characters treat the church like a tourist location. The pilgrims’ devotion is portrayed incredibly thinly, as if to avoid offending people. Actually, they’re very open with their self-serving reasons for their pilgrimages. Only one pilgrim is shown revering St. James, and that’s only at the end at the cathedral; no other mention of St. James’ history or significance is made. In a scene where Mass is being said, the only focus is on the (huge) censer as if the mass was nothing more than a show. Also, the cathedral’s significance is seemingly deemphasized because Tom chooses, at the recommendation of a gypsy, to go a few miles further to a coastal city.
The movie ends not with the characters turning to God as the solution to their problems, but rather feeling accomplished and proud of themselves for walking so far. Any spiritual growth is dismissed by their aloofness. I fear that this attitude could rub off on unsuspecting viewers, giving them the impression that they don’t need God to bring them true satisfaction and can sooner make it by their own means.
Why you should go see this movie.
So, I’m off my soapbox now. Yes, this movie has some theological faults and its purpose isn’t to evangelize. But should practicing Catholics support this movie with their hard-earned money? I think so. This year has had several movies that were just plain wholesome and intelligent like “The Help” and “Dolphin Tale.” They’re quite refreshing compared to the typical Hollywood repertoire. If we want to convey to Hollywood execs that we want more movies like this that aren’t afraid of this big institution that is the Catholic Church, the best way to get their attention is with box office ticket sales.
Furthermore, even if Tom’s spiritual journey is flawed, that doesn’t mean that it can’t inspire you to make your own spiritual journey.