It is a rare movie that has the possibility of really being useful (rather than simply entertaining) in a medieval Iberia-focused classroom. I had high hopes that The Way, the newish Martin Sheen movie about a father walking the Camino de Santiago in memory of his son, would fall into that category. And while I'm definitely glad that I saw the movie, it was neither particularly good as a movie nor will it be especially useful in a classroom setting.
In the positive column, Martin Sheen gives a wonderful performance as Tom, a Ventura, CA-based ophthalmologist who finds himself going to the south of France to collect the remains of Danny, his 40-year-old ABD anthropologist son who was killed in a freak storm in the Pyrenees during his first day of walking the Camino de Santiago, the medieval pilgrim route that goes all the way from Paris to the cathedral of Saint James in the Galician city of Santiago de Compostela. On the spur of the moment, he decides to have Danny's body cremated and trek to Compostela himself, scattering the ashes along the way.
Both the script and the cinematography really let Sheen's performance down, though. As Tom travels the Camino he collects a few other discontents and misfits and they form a scruffy hiking band, each of them trying hard not to like each other and to resolve their own issues; it's not really enough of a story to spin a whole script from and as a result, the writing is not particularly tight. So many sudden, jarring moments were naked attempts to manipulate the audience's emotions; the ones that stick out in my memory are the revelation, seemingly out of nowhere, that the Canadian pilgrim Sarah had been abused by her husband and was seeking absolution for having had an abortion rather than bear the man's child and the fleeting, unsympathetic glimpse of the Franciscan flagellants walking the Camino and bearing a large wooden cross. With respect to the cinematography itself, what should or could have been sweeping views of the landscape in Navarre and the Basque country and Galicia were fleeting and in fuzzy focus; and the stops that the group made in towns did not visually highlight life or architecture or much of anything there. Visually, the whole movie felt like a squandered opportunity.
Finally, I am not one to throw around the O-word liberally, but Tom's encounter with a Roma community, begun when a young gypsy boy stole the backpack containing Danny's ashes, was preposterously Orientalizing in the full-on Saidian sense of it. It turned out that the boy's father was the one enlightened, English-speaking member of the community and as such forced him not only to return the backpack but to carry it for Tom all the way to the edge of town on his way out, switching the boy all the way.
It's not that bad movies have no place in a classroom. In fact, one of the ones I find to be most useful is the Orlando Bloom vehicle Kingdom of Heaven. It's just that this movie was neither good enough nor bad enough for that. It's a movie worth seeing, but maybe not until it comes out on Netflix.
Postscript: In spite of all of this — especially in spite of the lack of moving scenery — the movie did make me want to walk the Camino in a way I've never been especially interested in doing before. Stay tuned.