Movies with explicit religious themes often flirt with sanctimony, but "The Way" is refreshingly sincere. Martin Sheen plays a well-to-do optometrist who grudgingly gives up his worldly comforts to complete a challenging spiritual tour begun by his late son. On the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, a Catholic pilgrim's path stretching 550 miles across northern Spain, the curmudgeon meets a trio of equally flawed, colorful travelers, has some adventures and emerges with a new appreciation of life's possibilities.
It could have come out sentimental, but doesn't. The secret is the matter-of-factness. "The Way" is full of empathy and warmth but doesn't parade its feelings. In the screenplay (written by Sheen's son Emilio Estevez, who also directed) there is no speechifying, moralizing or commentary of any sort. We are never buttonholed and told what to think. We get flashes of insight into the troubled but touching relationship between the father and his late son. They're not philosophers. They argue in Dr. Phil bromides about responsibility vs. seeking bliss. The film doesn't stack the deck in either direction.
The pace picks up as Sheen collects his mismatched traveling companions for the two-month trek. There's a cool, cynical Canadian (Debra Kara Unger), a burly, big-hearted Dutchman (Yorick van Wageningen, soon to play a villain in "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo") and a blabbermouth travel writer from Ireland (James Nesbitt, who has a significant role in the upcoming "Hobbit" films). The characters are three-dimensional modern individuals, yet they have a bit of "Canterbury Tales" and "Wizard of Oz" about them. They're marvelous company, and bit by bit they coax Sheen out of his shell.
The scenery is deliciously atmospheric, and the significance of the religious shrines along the way isn't overstressed. "The Way" is good without being goody-goody. Both the strengths and weaknesses of religion are in the film, and conveyed with admirable economy. The Irishman is a particular critic of Catholicism, describing his country's scandal-plagued churches as "temples of tears."
The travelers are a secular bunch, each with his own brand of petty knavishness, and when they reach the trail's end, no one has a life-altering conversion. They're just a bit better off than they were before. Whether it was the church visits or the fresh air, good food, exercise and sharp conversation that made the difference is up to you. Just as it should be.
Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, some drug use and smoking.
Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes.
Note: One of two films opening this week in the Arts & Education Council's Independent Film Series.