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June 21, 2012

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Rigorously secular states, an embattled Church, religious values that are perceived as antiquated or simply equated with humanist morality: getting religion has become complicated, almost a niche activity. In Europe, filmic consideration of Christian religious sentiment (in its widest sense and as opposed to self-service spirituality) has become pretty much the exclusive domain of arthouse films such as Des hommes et des dieux or documentaries like Die große Stille.

Only countries in which these sentiments and practices are still taken seriously engage with them at semi-popular feature film level. June sees the German release of two such (vastly different) North American films reflecting on current religious sentiment and practice.

In what will doubtless and perhaps unjustly prove the more popular of these two, The Way, directed by Emilio Estevez, stars his father, Martin Sheen, as Tom, a taciturn ophthalmologist whose estranged, free-spirited son (a briefly recurring Estevez) dies in a freak accident on the pilgrim’s path known as The Way of St. James to Santiago de Compostela. Plucked from the fairway of his golfing club by this news, Tom travels from the US to the Pyrenees to collect his son’s ashes. On a visit to his local church before he leaves, the priest asks him whether he would like to pray. Tom declines.

It’s clear, pretty much from the beginning, that Tom’s spirituality will undergo some form of positive transformation. Arriving in the mountain village to collect his son’s ashes, he decides to pick up where his son left off, stows the casket in an outside pocket of his son’s rucksack and sets off, scattering ashes as he goes. He’s joined along the way by garrulous, overweight Dutchman Joost (Yorick van Wageningen), Sarah, a razor-tongued Canadian (Deborah Kara Unger), and an Irishman (James Nesbitt) with writer’s block.

The movie is marred by some stock community-spirit situations as well as minor inconsistencies (characters that look as coiffed after two months trekking as they did when they set out). But by restricting itself to the paradigm of an outer pilgrimage that mirrors inner progress towards acceptance and peace of mind, Estevez succeeds in making a very simple statement. Time and effort are relevant. The journey is the way.

The Way | Directed by Emilio Estevez (USA 2010), with Martin Sheen, Yorick van Wageningen, Deborah Kara Unger, James Nesbitt. Starts June 21

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June 21, 2012

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