Arts and Culture

The Way: Emotional and Spiritual

by Father Robert Lauder

A scene from The Way with Martin Sheen.

It must be close to 40 years ago that I first met Martin Sheen. The occasion was the screening of Catholics, a film based on a story by Brian Moore. I had been invited by The New York Times to view the film and to write an essay about it. In relation to the film there was a luncheon at the 21 Club in Manhattan. In keeping with the film’s location, which was Ireland, the luncheon was Irish stew. I can still recall how delicious the meal was. Literally the meat melted in my mouth. Sheen attended the luncheon as did his co-star Trevor Howard.
Sheen, Howard and Cyril Cusack play priests in the film. When I had an opportunity to speak with Martin at the luncheon, he informed me that his background was Catholic. That signaled to me that at this point in his life he was not a “practicing Catholic.” Years  later, while filming Francis Ford Coppolla’s Apocalypse Now, Sheen suffered a heart attack and received the last rites. Apparently this was a dramatic turning point in his life and now he has the reputation of being a person who takes his Catholic faith very seriously. Several times I saw Sheen on the Good Friday Pax Christi procession through the streets of Manhattan.
The reason that Sheen has been on my mind lately is the opening of the film, The Way, written and directed by his son, Emilio Estevez, and starring Martin. I strongly urge readers of this column to see the film. Because over the years I often have written about film in this column, readers may have the impression that I attend films often. I don’t. In recent years occasionally someone has recommended a comedy to me and just about every time I followed up on their recommendation I have been disappointed. Watching contemporary comedies tempts me to think that I have lost my sense of humor. The comedies that I have seen in recent years are not funny and are filled with bathroom humor and other vulgarities.
Because of the film festivals I conduct at the Immaculate Conception Center in Douglaston every semester, I do see six films in the fall and six films in the spring. Many of these films are classics and all of the films are excellent. Viewing these outstanding films has made me critical of much that is being put out today.
I think that The Way is a special film. As soon as it becomes available, I will try to show it in one of the festivals. A visually beautiful film, The Way is stimulating and provocative. It is the type of film that may stay with people long after they have left the theatre.
On the surface the story seems rather simple. A young man, played by Estevez, has died while trying to make the ancient pilgrimage route from France to the Spanish shrine of Santiago de Compostella. Before his death the young man was estranged from his father, beautifully played by Sheen. Learning of his son’s desire to make the pilgrimage, Sheen decides to follow literally in his son’s footsteps. At various stops during the pilgrimage, the father leaves some of his son’s ashes. Though this is against Canon Law, which states that ashes should be buried in sacred ground, within the context of the film, it works dramatically.
The character played by Sheen for most of the film is a rather lukewarm Catholic. At one point he tells a priest that he attends Mass only on Easter and Christmas. Early in the film he is distant and aloof from every person he meets on the pilgrimage but eventually he becomes friendly with three other people who are making the pilgrimage. The relationships that eventually develop among the four characters are both beautiful and touching. I think each of the four undergoes what might be described as a conversion. Each seems to find something other than what they expected or wished for from the pilgrimage.
The scene which shows their arrival at the shrine and how each reacts is exceptionally well done. As I watched the characters being deeply touched by being present at the shrine, I suspected that those of us in the theatre were also being touched emotionally and perhaps spiritually.
Whenever I see a film that is as good as The Way I cannot help comparing the film to some of the contemporary films that cost a fortune to make and yet say next to nothing about anything important. I have the impression that The Way was a labor of love for both Estevez and Sheen.
“A visually beautiful film, The Way is stimulating and provocative. It is the type of film that may stay with people long after they have left the theatre.