Wednesday, October 12, 2011

No Way! Yes Way!

On Saturday, the Movies and Meaning group that I participate in met at a downtown theater to see the new movie The Way, starring Martin Sheen and directed by his son Emilio Estevez. When I heard about this movie a couple months ago, I could not wait to see it. I suggested this movie as a possibility for the group and they agreed. Anything with a spiritual content is usually what the group will go see, and then discuss afterwards.

I read the reviews and they were mixed. Some reviewers thought it would make a better documentary than actual movie. However, that's what made me intrigued about seeing this movie. How can they make it interesting? If it was a documentary, I likely would have waited to see it on DVD, if at all. As an actual movie, though, it sounded intriguing.

What is it about, you ask? Well, The Way is the name of a famous, historical path that many Christian pilgrims have walked for over a thousand years in northern Spain. The Spanish name is: El Camino de Santiago de Compostela. "El Camino" means "The Way." In English, we call it, "The Way of St. James." Supposedly, the remains of the Apostle James is buried in Santiago de Compostela, a town in northwestern Spain, near the Atlantic Ocean and north of Portugal. For over a millennium, Christian pilgrims have made the journey on foot, including King Charlemagne of France and King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. The medieval classic Song of Roland also plays into this locale.

The actual movie focuses on the modern day. Martin Sheen plays a conservative eye doctor who lives to golf with his buddies. He receives a phone call that his 40 year old son (and only son) had died in a freak accident on his first day on El Camino, at the starting point in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France. He goes there to identify the body and bring the remains home. Something about what the Chief of Police tells him makes him decide to hike the entire path (800 kilometers or about 500 miles) for the sake of his son. He decides to cremate the body and carries the ashes in the backpack that his son had carried when he died.

Along the way, he meets interesting characters, including a larger-than-life Dutchman who claims to be going on a pilgrimage to lose some weight, even though he's always stuffing his face with incredible goat cheese and rack of lamb, and other treats they find in villages along the way. There's a jaded Canadian lady with serious "anger issues." She claims that she will give up smoking at journey's end, even though she smokes like a chimney all the way there. Finally, there's an annoying writer suffering from writer's block from Ireland. Along the way, they walk together or separately. Paths cross all the time, as people walk together for awhile and in solitude at other times. There are other people along the way.

At various points along the journey, Martin Sheen's character stops to spread some ashes on a monument or around some plants. He's private about it and doesn't share his reasons for making the pilgrimage. The Dutch guy is smart, though and figures it out. In fact, my favourite character is the Dutch guy because it rings so true for the Dutch guys I've met (including the one who stole away the lady I wanted a relationship with). He is bluntly honest, smart, and lives life to the fullest. His accent is unmistakeable Dutch.

The Canadian lady comes on strong and harsh in the beginning, hurling insults and even a quite timely reference to Steve Jobs, who passed away just last week. If I met such a lady in my travels, I would've had a lot of fun with her. I am able to take such jibes from foreigners because I realize that many people have stereotypes about Americans and when they get to know me, all their beliefs about Americans will be turned upside down (because I am so unlike most Americans, I actually believe that it is a great thing for our country when I am the first American that foreigners meet). When I was in Prague in 1993, I stayed in a youth hostel and one guy from Australia just started ripping on America when he found out my nationality. What surprised him even more was when I actually agreed with his opinions! He became friendlier and interested in a real conversation after I proved that I wasn't some defensive, uptight American. This is why I love traveling overseas and meeting foreigners! I don't have emotional reactions to people's perception of America or Americans because I am likely to agree with their views at some level.

This movie has so much incredible scenery. There are moments where characters are shown walking through various landscapes (usually to a music montage, as is custom for movies to make time lapses more interesting) and other moments where they converse and reveal aspects of their characters and motivations through what they share with one another. There was one scene that was a bit contrived, when Sheen has a little too much to drink and just lets loose on the other walkers in his group. There are other scenes that add interesting elements of drama, such as when Sheen's backpack falls off a bridge and into the river, which he chases after; or when a gypsy kid steals his backpack in one Spanish town. However, even that moment led to a good resolution, which is an example of how life often surprises us.

One moment that really stood out for me in the film was when the group decide to splurge on a nice hotel for a night, rather than stay at the pilgrim pensiones (which are cheap and basically a large room filled with bunk beds). At first, they enjoy their solitude in their separate luxury accommodations, but one by one, they congregate in Sheen's room. To me, this scene is the ultimate message of the movie: luxury / materialism isolates us when what we really want is to fellowship with one another. That is what life is ultimately about: companionship and community, no matter how meager the accommodations.

At the end of the journey, at the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, each pilgrim presents his or her Pilgrim's Passport with stamps from every village along the way and gets a certificate written in Latin that they had made the journey. However, the journey does not end because Sheen decides to hike the short distance to Finisterra (Land's End) to scatter the rest of his son's remains into the mighty ocean.

How have the pilgrims changed in their journey? Well, go see this film and find out!!!

I love this movie. Absolutely love it! As I watched it, my feeling was incredibly blissful. I wanted to be right there on El Camino with them. I wanted to meet the foreigners who were all walking for various reasons. I enjoyed the table where people ate and had intense discussions about history (Charlemagne, Roland, El Cid).

When the group discussed the movie, it sounds like others liked it but found flaws in the film (naturally, its not a perfect movie, but for me, if it has great location, interesting characters and inspires me, then it will earn high marks). Some wanted to hear more interior dialogue (I actually hate movies with voice-over narration because I think its lazy. I prefer action, dialogue, and facial expressions to tell a story). We might not get to hear Sheen's character's mourning process, but I'm grateful for that. I'm sure that there are plenty of angry at God moments, the "why me?" moments, the pleading and deal making and promises on the way to acceptance and being at peace with it. All audiences get to see is the interactions between the characters, which is more interesting to me than someone's interior monologue. So, I think director Emilio Estevez called it right in his directing (he previously directed the RFK tribute film Bobby, which I found deeply flawed and disappointing).

The discussion was interesting, though. I found it interesting that I am part of a movie watching and discussing group that is sponsored by a Presbyterian church. I know very little about the Presbyterians but I'm amazed that the people I've come to know have the same views about Christian dogmas that I do and we discuss things that I've never heard members in my own faith community (the Community of Christ) discuss. In fact, my home congregation of Atlanta North recently had a big group attend a theater to see the Christian produced film called Courageous or something like that. They did the same for another Christian produced film, Fireproof. I consider those films to be "Evangelical Christian propaganda" and aren't very interesting. I doubt that Atlanta North would gather a big group to go see The Way, though, because its probably too universal in regards to spirituality instead of being Christian doctrine specific. So what does this mean for me when I feel a deeper connection with Presbyterians who share my interest in universal spirituality and seeing Bible stories as metaphors, than I do with members of my own faith community who keep trying to be more and more Evangelical even though conservative Evangelicals will always view our church as a "cult"? Its funny that I've become more expansive in seeking out commonalities with people of other faiths, while my old congregation keeps trying to fit inside the narrow defines of evangelical Christianity.

The map above shows the many paths to Santiago de Compostela. The most popular one to hike is known as "The French Way" or "El Camino Frances" (the yellow line). This one takes pilgrims through the famous Spanish city of Pamplona, the town where the running of the bulls takes place each summer.

A friend of mine hiked El Camino Frances earlier this year and even blogged about it. She's a church member I know from Atlanta North, but like me, she considers herself a bit "New Agey" and free spirited. The great news is that she had called me on Sunday evening, letting me know that she will be in Portland in November for the church's Mission Center Conference. She's currently living in Palmer, Alaska, so I now have someone to visit and play tour guide if I get to visit Alaska (I'd love to go next summer, if possible). Anyhow, it will be great to play tourguide to Portland when she visits and I plan to ask her all about her El Camino pilgrimage experience. I can't wait!!

I first heard about El Camino a decade ago when actress and New Age practitioner Shirley MacLaine wrote a book about her experience hiking it. I never read the book, so naturally, after seeing The Way, and discussing it with the group, I went straight to Powell's City of Books to buy a copy of her book, which I've been reading since Saturday evening. I have never been interested in hiking the Appalachian Trail, but I'm actually interested in hiking El Camino someday. I guess this is consistent with my character, because since childhood, I have always preferred the international over the national. El Camino would put me in contact with foreigners, whereas the A.T. is mostly hiked by Americans and there's the scary aspect of being near or around "Appalachian type" people (which the film Deliverance does not present too kindly). However, El Camino has a long, distinguished history with spiritual tradition behind it. And its only 500 miles, which is recommended to be hiked between 30 to 40 days (versus a 6-month hike for the entire A.T.). I've been wanting to vacation in Lisbon, Portugal someday, as well as see Andorra (the tiny country in between France and Spain), Carcassonne (the walled medieval city in Southern France), Lourdes, and Nantes. I guess I need a three month work-free summer so I can hike El Camino and then travel to Portugal, Andorra, and southern France. Sounds like a plan!

If you're looking for an inspiring movie, please go see and support The Way. The only way for more movies of this kind to be made is for The Way to be financially successful. It really is worth seeing and joins the wonderful cinematic tradition of "road movies." Here's a quote I read from Martin Sheen about the theme of the movie: "I think the movie reminds us that we each have to embrace our brokenness. We live at a time when we are supposedly supremely connected by technology, but I don't see it. This is a film about very different people walking together who find a way to connect with each other." Amen!

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