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02 May 2011

The long road

The long road

Looking for conversation starters, Sophie Lister finds relevant themes in popular culture...

Each of us, at one time or another, feels like getting away from it all. Amid the pressures of everyday life, we often feel less than 'spiritual', and long to pursue the things that really matter. But in this day and age, is it even possible to make a break from the rat race? Where do we go to search for meaning? And what might we find?

The Way, which was released on 15 April, is the story of a man who goes on such a journey. Tom (Martin Sheen) is a no-nonsense doctor who lives an ordinary life in California. But when his adventurous son (Emilio Estevez) is killed while walking the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in Spain, Tom is forced to reassess his outlook. He decides to walk the 800-kilometre path in his son's memory, leaving behind his comforts and familiar routine.

In real life, thousands of people take the pilgrimage every year, journeying across the Pyrenees and through the Spanish countryside to the cathedral where, legend has it, the bones of St James are buried. To many the Camino is simply a cultural trail, or a physical challenge - but others take to the road for spiritual reasons. Whether they are committed Catholics or not, the route provides a chance to reflect on life. In the film, Tom's pilgrimage becomes a chance for him to grieve the son he never really understood, and to piece himself back together.

He is not the only film hero of recent years to take to the road in a search for spiritual re-connection. Last year, Julia Roberts played Liz Gilbert in Eat Pray Love, an adaptation of the popular autobiographical novel. Sensing that her apparently perfect home, job and marriage don't truly satisfy her, Liz chooses to leave her husband and set off on a journey of self-discovery. "I used to have this appetite for food, for my life, and it's just gone," she says. "I want to go some place where I can marvel at something."

The question of whether Liz's travels are an honest search or an indulgence is troubling. She visits Italy, India and Bali, picking up life lessons as she goes - but she leaves several casualties in her wake before the film's too-perfect conclusion. Her husband and lover are both discarded when the going gets tough, while the people she meets along the way seem to exist only to further her interests. Her answers are often shaped by what she wants and finds easy, rather than by any external truth.

Shared happiness

Happiness is only real when shared

A more extreme approach is taken by Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch) in 2007's Into the Wild, which is also based on a true story. Sick of the materialism and superficiality which surround him, the young graduate dramatically cuts ties with civilization and heads for the wilderness. Believing that only nature's freedom can fill the hole inside him, he refuses even to tell his family where he's going, and shrugs off those who try to befriend him. But he eventually learns, to his cost, that "happiness is only real when shared".

Tom's pilgrimage in The Way is perhaps a more fulfilling spiritual quest because it leads him deeper into relationship with others. Where Liz conducts relationships at her convenience, and Chris sees reliance on others as a trap to be avoided, Tom shares his journey with a group of fellow-pilgrims. The misfits and seekers he meets along the road become a surrogate family, and it is these ordinary bonds - hardly 'spiritual' as many would understand the word - which begin to heal him. Community and relationship may sound like overly simple answers to complex questions, but the truth is that they lie at the heart of reality.

These things aren't confined to expeditions away from the everyday. If a God of relationship really does exist, and has invited us to know Him, then our hunger for meaning and spirituality is valid - and our lives can take on new significance wherever we are. Most of us won't ever walk the Camino de Santiago, or jet around the world to find ourselves, or abandon the trappings of modernity for a life in the wilderness. But that doesn't stop us from making the most extraordinary journey of all.

  • The Way is out now.

Sophie Lister writes for Culturewatch.org

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