This comment, from Martin Sheen, came during a recent interview with the star of The Way, a new film written and directed by Sheen’s son Emilio Estevez, who was also presented and seated next to me. The father-son team was back home — Sheen is a Dayton native — as part of a bus tour promoting the film, and both men were more than willing to chat with me about El Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James), the pilgrimage at the center of their project and other tangential journeys along the way towards the film reaching audiences.
Fatherhood struck a cord for me as I watched the film prior to the interview. The questions and doubts we face, as men, regarding the raising of our children, the paths we send them out of our households to find for themselves and how those routes might be so very different from the ones we have taken on our own. Such concerns merge with the prevailing myths that dominate our culture, and so it is only natural that they do the same in this narrative.
A storm, quite literally, takes the life of Daniel Avery (Estevez) on his very first day in the Pyrenees. Word reaches his father Tom (Martin Sheen), a comfortably numb doctor who has recently lost his wife and fears that his son, a doctoral candidate putting his quest for a Ph.D. on hold to immerse himself in the world, has lost his way, and Tom gets swept up and dropped in France, where, after a bit of contemplation, he embarks on a journey to walk The Way for Daniel.
Tom seeks to withdraw into his sadness and loss, but reluctantly encounters a ragtag band of travelers who become his companions and aid him in his increasingly magical quest: a jovial Dutchman named Joost (Yorick van Wageningen) who fears his size is cutting his life and his key relationships short; a steely Canadian (Deborah Kara Unger) with secret wounds that force her to erect barriers to keep everyone at bay; and an Irish writer (James Nesbitt) wandering among hay bales, plagued by writer’s block.
There is no wizard lurking behind the curtain, but each of these pilgrims finds their own way, with Tom becoming a father to them in ways that he likely always wanted to be to Daniel.
On the road, Tom comes face-to-face with another father, a gypsy in Northern Spain whose son steals Tom’s backpack, which includes Daniel’s ashes that Tom has been scattering along the way.
Heartbroken and very nearly ready to give up the journey, it is only when the gypsy tracks Tom down and forces his son to return the pack and apologize for his actions that Tom sees the power of stern parental love and how it can shape the boy into a man. Tom gathers a glimpse into how he might have had a hand in creating the life-embracing son that died at peace on the road, living the life he wanted — and wanted his father to experience. The switching of roles only makes the impact of fatherhood more profound.
For Estevez and Sheen, this journey began in 2003, when Sheen, while on hiatus from The West Wing, found himself driving parts of El Camino with his 19-year-old grandson and assistant Taylor (Emilio’s son). As a self-professed practicing Catholic, the pilgrimage was one that spoke to Sheen from a more romantic standpoint, but it evolved into a journey into his family’s past that would eventually come full circle.
“We were in my sister’s apartment in Madrid (like Sheen, she’s a Dayton native), and she suggested we take a car and drive the Camino for future reference. So, we did and we got to this place, which is 500 kilometers from Santiago and we stayed in a country B&B. We were part of a pilgrim’s supper that night with all the people and the daughter of the owner, a very beautiful girl, came in to serve the meal and Taylor looked at her and she looked at him and they are still together. They are married now and they live in Barbos, that area in the film where the boy steals my bag. Emilio was working on Bobby at that point, but once he finished, he began to see the possibility in this narrative, the story of fathers and sons and family.”
Estevez chimes in, offering this quietly fitting coda to the story.
“Essentially, you have four generations connected in this film,” he says. “First, of course, is my grandfather (the film is dedicated to Francesco Estevez), from the north of Spain, coming to America, having my father, who had me, and then me having Taylor. Taylor going back to Spain and all of us following him back to the spirit of my grandfather whose village was about 80 kilometers from Santiago.”
As they finish each other’s stories (of course all stories are really only one — that of the Estevez family), it is obvious the love that flows between this father and son. There is no effort from either of these men to get over being fathers or sons. It is simply just the way of the world.
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