For those of us that are lost, Emilio Estevezâ€™s new film â€œThe Wayâ€ (2011) is a comforting reminder that most likely so is everyone else. Four unlikely pilgrims briefly meet on El Camino de Santiago or The Way of St. James. Each from a different part of the western world, bearing a different burden: grief, abuse, self-loathing and writerâ€™s block, walks the way alone with others who are also alone. Though they will all get around to admitting to their stash of personal hurts that burdens their way, no one actually thinks that burdens are to be shared or can be shared, especially with strangers. It is obvious, of course, from all the scanning of the maps and guidebooks that they are all there to find a way out of the place that they cannot speak about, at least not in any way that betrays how deeply it matters to them. A personal quest on a road that ends in insight for all is a bit of a road movie clichÃ© except that the film downplays moments of personal hallelujah and
foregrounds the questions: What makes a pilgrim? What does suffering have to do with a pilgrimage?
The Way of St. James has been a pilgrimage route for Catholics since the middle ages. A brief tableau of three self-flagellating pilgrims â€“ two with torn robes and bloody backs and one heaving a crucifix, offer an interesting point of reference for the back-packing, stick-twirling pilgrims on the same road. Self-flagellation in the context of enacting Christâ€™s passion is one way to make oneâ€™s wounds and burdens public. This ritual spectacle of bearing ones burden in public, of calling attention to oneâ€™s wounds makes the idea of suffering central to the purpose of a pilgrimage. Suffering â€“ not inconvenience, not a self-imposed exercise in humility but an acknowledgement of feeling pain that even God had to experience to be human â€“ makes a pilgrim distinct from any other kind of traveler. But no matter how literal the burden of the crucifix is or how literal the wounds are, in adopting the narrative of Christâ€™s suffering one still embraces metaphor and all the dis
tancing of self from suffering that metaphor affords. The back-packing, stick-twirling pilgrims are made up of this distancing of self and suffering; the metaphor of Christ’s passion is replaced by stoicism, irony, good-humor and sarcasm. The personal history in their back-packs is the crucifix on their backs.
â€œThe Wayâ€ gently handles the question of what one is meant to do with oneâ€™s cross. Personal grief and disappointment is quite as often generic, but the circumscription of the experience of grief as personal is crucial to the production of the self as an individual, as separate from others. Perhaps that is why the ritual spectacle of bearing the cross of Christ is not a method of self-production that the back-packing pilgrims employ. The film narrates the complexity of a pilgrimage route as a public space to come to terms with private grief. The film suggests that talking about personal grief is not as necessary as acknowledging it to oneself and being prepared to admit to it to others. â€œThe Wayâ€ is not about the loss of vocabulary to articulate grief but about the inadequacy of only articulating it. What might lessen grief is the effort put in the path on the journey of over 800kms on foot through rough but spectacular Â landscapes that might potentially stretch and make porous the tight boundaries of the self. A porous and luminous boundary of the self might just let grief, disappointment and fear scatter along the way as Tom Avery scatters his dead sonâ€™s ashes.