I saw Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, nominated for Best Picture, a few months ago, and I wasn’t pulled in. I thought maybe my lyric mojo was on the fritz, so I took the “opportunity” of 2 weeks of resting with the flu to watch it on pay-per-view.
I had noticed that the Emilio Estevez/Martin Sheen film The Way about walking the Camino de Compostela was also available, and with a lot of empty hours before me, I decided to make these a living room double feature. That turned out to be beautifully satisfying: the two films are excellent companion explorations on loss and grief, fathers and sons, and the meaning of it ALL. Beyond that there is the extra cosmic connection that Martin Sheen starred in Terrence Malick’s first feature, Badlands.
The Way is a quiet film based on the primal trope of “the road.” What stands out immediately is the Martin Sheen charisma, so I wasn’t surprised that Neil Genzlinger opens his New York Times review with “One thing you quickly realize when you sit down to watch “The Way”: Martin Sheen is a very compelling actor.” He plays Tom Avery, a California eye doctor whose only son dies while he’s traveling the world, specifically the day after he sets off to walk the Way of St. James, a medieval pilgrimage route through northern Spain. Tom goes to reclaim his body, and then decides to walk the Camino with his son’s ashes to fulfill his son’s desire.
When Tom starts out he is not very open to the experience, nor to the people he meets along the way. He haphazardly starts to walk, yes like Dorothy, with 3 people: a Dutchman, a Canadian women, and an Irishmen.
The film is not a documentary, but it was filmed in France and Spain and has beautiful cinematography of some of the actual route that completely centers the film.
What Is Santiago de Compostela, You Might Ask?
It is the shrine to one of the 12 Apostles, St. James, son of Zebedee. History confirms that a James was beheaded by Herod Agrippa (son of King Herod) in A.D. 44. So, what is the shrine doing in Spain, you might ask? Tradition says that St. James preached the Gospel in Spain, then returned to Jerusalem. When Herod killed him, his body was miraculously transported (the Church uses the verb “translated” some say “flown by angels”) in a rudderless boat that landed in Iria Flavia, and then was brought to what became Compostella. “James” in western Iberia became "Iago,” from Hebrew Ya'akov, which when prefixed with "Sant" became "Santiago.”
There have been “serious questions” raised whether the remains of St. James actually ever made the journey, by any fashion, from Judea to Spain: it’s in the realm of Catholic tradition, not belief. But since people thought they were there, and wanted to honor the relics of one of the 12, Compostela became one of the most important of the medieval pilgrimage shrines, with documented visitors dating from 9th century, earliest pilgrims from beyond the Pyrenees in 10th century, and by the 12 century, it was an organized industry that was the beginnings of tourism. So sure, economics had something to do with it, as it does with all of humanity’s microcosm.
The growth of the tourist business was a factor in Compostela's rise, but you can’t force someone to go on a pilgrimage, there has to be some power that draws people in. And that power---of religious experience, of personal discovery, of physical achievement, of individual storytelling as a way to make sense of what happens to you in life----is earnestly but sweetly captured by The Way in its script and its spirit as we watch Tom come to terms with his grief and his relationship with his only son. Estevez is not a strong director and that detracts from the whole, but not from the story.
The Tree of Life
From a film where all is laid bare and defined in specifics to a film of vibrant mysteries. The Tree of Life is big think, grand gestures, a cinematic yearning for a deep connection to the cosmos, to LIFE and its MEANING.
Malick’s film feels labored to me, even as parts of it are masterful. I did not find an artistic transcendence in the cosmic abstract/metaphoric creation/earth extinction/ dinosaurs intercut with the ordinary. I didn’t like the whispered narration (some say prayers), nor the ambiguity of it all. Where is the story set? How did the son die? When the father lost his job, where did he land? (That second house of glass is wildly sophisticated and expensive looking.) What is anybody’s name? The family name O’Brien only shows up at the end in the credits. They go to church, which given their surname is probably Catholic (certainly not Baptist, given the stain glass window and vested priest), an interesting detail given the spiritual longing and personal nature of the film,
Nature or Grace?
The film opens with hushed narration from the mother that includes:
“The nuns taught us there were two ways through life - the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you'll follow.”
“Grace doesn't try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries.”
“Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.”
Malick’s dichotomy is played out in the mother, who is kind, and the father, who is harsh and bullies his children, but the terms “grace” and “nature” seem odd and arbitrary words to dub these character types. It also seems a forced conceit that you have to choose. Most people are fluidly both.
The film intercuts between a middle-aged son at work, an architect, and his thoughts about his time growing up with this mom and dad and his two brothers, one of whom dies. Decades later he is still struggling with his grief.
A prominent element of all the film’s scenes is the music that is the soundtrack to the O’Brien’s lives as well as the film itself.
Music is one of humanity’s most direct connections to the divine. The shimmering pieces of Tavener and Preisner; the sheer brilliance of Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier/Toccato & Fugue in D Minor (his masterpieces have been considered “a look at the mind of God” by musicians for centuries); the sweeping symphonic expression of freedom in Smetana’s The Moldau, sections of the Mass by the uber Romantic composer Berlioz, with the holy Agnus Dei saved for the ‘on the beach’ scene: this music throughout touches all souls, those of nature and those of grace. I wonder if Malick sees music this way, as a bridge.
On the Beach, Then on the Road
The middle-aged son works in a cathedral of glass in a major city, not named in the film but called Houston in reviews.
In his elevator ride down Penn has a vision that takes him to a beach with people he’s known, dead people frozen in their younger selves.
It’s the most explicitly religious part of the film, as the mother, in Mother of God blue light, surrounded by some sort of a vision in white, raises her hands to the heavens and says, “I give you my son.” On a practical note, does she mean the son who died, or the middle-aged son who is struggling? Either way it’s a classic Christian trope.
Sean Penn then walks out of his glass elevator, with a smile, and the final image is of a bridge. The implication is that he is back in the stream of life. You might say, back on the road.
So now we are again in Emilio Estevez’ quiet film, The Way. We can yearn for the big think, the big vision. We can struggle with ‘what does it all mean’ and grief can sadden and pull us down. But in truth, what do we have, but to keep moving on each day, whether it’s to work and back again, or on a road that takes us beyond our front door for a while, perhaps with songs that are the soundtrack of our own life on the iPod.