As I've written before, there are precious few American Catholics on the Camino de Santiago this spring. So most of those who have seen "The Way," the 2011 film starring Martin Sheen, have lived this pilgrimage vicariously. But is the film even accurate, or are all these "Way" watchers living a dream? After 25 days on the road to Santiago, I'd answer both yes and no.
Let's see what Emilio Estevez's film—about a father (Sheen) who walks the Way after his son (Estevez) dies here—gets right and gets wrong.
Right: It's beautiful out here. And fun. And funny.
So it's a Hollywood movie, right? So it is all of these things, and this is true. The Camino de Santiago is a breathtaking walk (metaphorically and literally) through north central Spain, where the landscape is even more varied and dramatic than the film shows. And the walk is adventurous and often entertaining, and many of the people you meet are determined to have fun and make your pilgrimage fun too, even when you don't want it to be. (There was the night in an albergue when we almost had an international incident between Italians in one room and a louder set of Spaniards in the next, after a dinner at which the two groups had shared wholesale quantities of red wine.) Estevez and Sheen, who financed their own picture and shot it on a shoestring budget, packed a tremendous amount of entertainment into the Camino de Santiago—a great achievement, and an accurate one.
Wrong: But it's a lot harder than it looks.
People die out here. Every month. Seriously. The film's plot is launched by the death of Estevez's character on the first stage, from St. Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles. So yes, it acknowledges the dangers, at least of that stage. During the month in which my daughter and I started our pilgrimage, May 2012, at least two people died on this passage of the Pyrenees, and another was lost in fog for more than 24 hours before being rescued. A tip for the unwary: If there's fog over the church in St. Jean, it's clear on the mountain, and vice versa.
But most of the grave markers we've seen are on later stages of the Camino. All along the Way are crosses commemorating those who dropped dead in their tracks, presumably from heart attacks mostly. This pilgrimage is a grind. On day 24 (yesterday), long after I thought I was in trekking shape and had made friends with my pack, I collapsed into bed after an eight-hour marathon that ended with a joint-jarring two-hour trek downhill. Setting our alarm for 5:15 am this morning, Marian and I did not even try to get out of bed until 7:00.
Wrong: All the same, I can't imagine a safer place to walk.
The film's plot turns at a critical moment on the theft of Sheen's pack by a gypsy youth. This incident put me on alert from my first day on the Camino. Would my belongings be in danger? My daughter? My self? The answers are no, and no, and no. I'm sure I could get my valuables stolen if I were intentionally careless. But simple security measures suffice. And as for personal safety, there are countless women of all ages walking the Way alone. For three days, my daughter (24) went off by herself, and I didn't have the slightest concern for her safety.
Wrong: The food is worse than it looks, and the albergues are better.
"The Way" makes it look as though pilgrims enjoy a feast every night—or eat fresh food off the land when they can't find a restaurant. What we really eat, if not always enjoy, is bread and coffee for breakfast, more bread-based meals for lunch, and usually a "pilgrim menu" for dinner, costing 8-10 euros a piece. The quality of these menus is all over the map. Each includes a first and second course, with dessert and a choice of water or wine. Since I am no longer a drinker, I have not tested whether the wine is unlimited, although it seems to be. But the choices of courses are limited in the extreme. This has made dining for my vegetarian daughter a challenge. Fortunately, she is fluent in Spanish and usually can talk her way into a vegetarian omelette and salad.
As for the albergues, the dormitory-like hostels where most pilgrims stay and stay cheaply, they are much better than the one shown in the film. On his first night in Roncesvalles, Sheen stays in a grim, dank barracks that was true-to-life two years ago. But in early 2011, the Roncesvalles municipal hostel was replaced by a new state-of-the-art facility. I thought this clean, well-lit, real-life place would set me up for grimness, including cold showers, further down the road, but in fact I have enjoyed only hot showers and the accommodations are strikingly good, as long as you can sleep while others snore and pad all night to the bathroom in their flip-flops. (I cannot.)
As for "El Roman," the bizarro owner of a casa rural who spooks the film's characters by talking to himself, friends we met on the Way claim that he really exists. They stopped in a small albergue in a smaller town and nearly left in the middle of the night after being creeped out by the owner. Which only shows that people are people, in films as in life.
Wrong: More pilgrims speak German than English—though the Germans speak English but not vice versa.
"The Way" is an English-language film without subtitles. So it doesn't capture the international and mostly non-English quality of what happens here.
Right: The friendships are surprising.
There is something about the Camino that evokes sincerity and promotes friendship. The film's great strength is the foursome at its center: Sheen's character, along with a fat Dutchman, a bitter Canadian woman, and an Irishman angry at the Church. The way they slowly reveal their deepest secrets to each other is not just a screenwriting trick. It actually happens here. I feel a striking affection for many of the people I have met on the Camino, and even a certain intimacy with some. When we run into them again, always a surprise, it is usually with a joy that surprises me.
Wrong: But friendships don't make a pilgrim. The Way itself does that.
Marian and I have entered the final quarter of the traditional Camino Francés, 800 kilometers in all from St. Jean to Santiago. The fraternal atmosphere of the first week or two—so prominent late in the film—has actually subsided, giving way to a deeper silence and thoughtfulness and even melancholy. I cannot tell you whether most pilgrims experience what I am experiencing. But seeing the Camino as a metaphor for life, I myself realize now, at age 60 and 200 kilometers from my destination, that this pilgrimage is nearing its end.
What was it all for? What has it meant? And what, if anything, will come after? Believe me, these are real questions, not theoretical ones, questions the Camino provokes.
Of course, I have not arrived at Santiago de Compostela yet, so these conclusions about the film and the reality of the Camino are provisional. I am still waiting for my aha moment, when the reason and meaning and outcome of my own pilgrimage become clear to me. Already my mind is turning to home, and perhaps this is another thing "The Way" doesn't get quite right.
In the Middle Ages, pilgrims walked or rode to Santiago and then home again. At Santiago de Compostela, they were only halfway there. Today, we modern pilgrims fly to Paris or Barcelona or Madrid, take a train to the head of the Camino, walk it, then fly home again. So we—like "The Way"—give little thought to the homecoming that is half of any true pilgrimage.
In the final scene, Sheen's character sets off on other journeys. We do not see his return to his medical office in California or his golf foursome. But for the rest of us, trekking through a Mideast bazaar after walking the Way of St. James is not an option. And it is only at home that we will see what we are left with.
I'm not there yet either.