In his son’s shoes

The Way
Ends tonight, Dec. 15. Pageant Theatre. Rated PG-13.
Rated 4.0

The Way is a moderately picaresque “Pilgrim’s Progress,” a miniature contemporary variation on The Canterbury Tales. (The title refers to the centuries-old path, sometimes called “the Milky Way,” that pilgrims have trod, on foot, through northern Spain, from the French border west to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.)

It’s also a father-son saga at several levels. Emilio Estevez directs and co-stars with his father, Martin Sheen. The older man plays an American doctor who comes to Spain to claim the body of his son Daniel (Estevez), who has died soon after starting his own pilgrimage on that historic path.

Though curmudgeonly Tom (Sheen) is not a particularly devout person, he decides to continue the pilgrimage that his son had begun, strewing the young man’s ashes at various points along “the way.” Tom’s increasingly soulful journey, with assorted piquant detours, makes up the bulk of the action in this two-hour, filmed-on-location drama.

Tom means to take this journey alone, but still gets variously attached to three younger pilgrims in the course of their trek. Each of them—the buffoonish Dutchman Joost (Yorick van Wageningen), the blonde Canadian divorcée (Deborah Kara Unger), the garrulous and pretentious Irishman Jack (James Nesbitt)—has a story that resonates, however indirectly, with Tom’s.

The deceased son is also a visible companion, very much alive, at certain points in the journey. He’s present in several brief flashbacks, but Tom also sees him in the faces of people he encounters, in passing, along the pilgrims’ path. The casual nature of these “mystic” moments is part of what makes them unexpectedly moving in this film’s evocative and consistently non-dogmatic exploration of the characters’ spiritual struggles.

The script (by Estevez, in part from a book by Jack Hitt) doesn’t steer entirely clear of an impulse to pontificate, but fortunately the film’s spiritual concerns get their richest expression in mostly wordless moments of action and reflection. Estevez and his father are Catholic, but their film evokes a deep-seated spirituality that’s beyond organized religion.

Significantly, it is a Gypsy patriarch, encountered in a father-son episode of another sort, who speaks most trenchantly to this point—when he urges the pilgrims onward and adds another dimension to their quest via his insistence that “religion has nothing to do with it.”