Walk the Walk

Martin Sheen and his (other) son make a pilgrimage

Family figures into The Way from so many directions, there's no getting around it. The movie is directed by Emilio Estevez and stars his dad, Martin Sheen. It was partly inspired by Sheen's father, to whom the film is dedicated. And the whole movie hinges on an overseas death that sends an American to claim his son's body.

The Way is about the Camino de Santiago, a trail that starts in France and ends in Spain. Thousands of people — including Estevez's own daughter-in-law — walk the path every year in hopes of finding some sort of spiritual or personal enlightenment along the way. It's not an easy trek — in fact, it can be downright brutal, as grumpy optometrist Tom (Sheen) learns after he gets a call informing him that his only son, Daniel (played by Estevez in flashbacks), was caught in a freak storm and died on the path.

Tom goes to France to bring him home, but once he gets there, and after some reflection, he decides to stay and complete the pilgrimage, with Daniel's cremated remains — which he sprinkles along the way — in tow.

"I had this image of it growing up," says the 71-year-old Sheen, who, along with Estevez and the rest of the movie's cast and crew, traveled more than 200 miles on the Camino de Santiago during filming. His dad often talked about the path but never got a chance to walk it.

As one character tells Tom in the movie: "Religion has nothing to do with this." Sheen and Estevez stressed the same thing during a recent stop in Cleveland. "It's appealing to agnostics, Catholics, believers, nonbelievers," says Estevez. "It's about [common] struggles and the disconnect between community and faith."

That sense of community is evident throughout The Way. Reluctant to talk about his son — or anything else, for that matter — Tom sets out on the path alone. But midway through, he's picked up three traveling companions, each one with a story to tell. "You do this for yourself," says Sheen, echoing his character's arc. "But you'll create your own community on the path."

The Way is a quiet movie. Not much happens — which is probably an accurate summation of the Camino itself. It's all about what you learn along the way. And there's plenty of time for reflection, as folks move from one small town to the next, stopping only to sleep and eat at the various inns catering to pilgrims. It can be a tough journey, as Sheen was well aware when his son asked him to star in the movie. "I had some anxiety about doing this — an old guy walking and carrying a bag," he admits. "A certain amount of discipline is necessary."

Despite all this, the movie is inspiring people to walk the path. Or at least they're talking about walking the path. "Just be sure to bring some Vaseline for the blisters," Sheen says with a laugh. "And good shoes."

The Way 2 1/2 STARS

Opens Friday.

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