Saturday, April 28, 2012

Movie & Book Review: "An Improbable Feast" & "The Way"

I'm reviewing a book and a movie on this occasion because of a serendipitous coincidence. First, my good friend, Geoff Boyce, gave me his new book An Improbable Feast to read. Geoff, has asked for an honest review (something I'd provide even if he didn't want it!).

Geoff has been the Uniting Church Christian Chaplin at Flinders University since 1997. From discussions I've had with him, and from reading his book, Geoff's ministry is rigorously focused on acceptance and inclusiveness. Using the metaphor of a feast, he describes how he has navigated through the challenges of ministering in a pluralist context where faiths ranged from atheism to paganism to Islam to Christianity to fundamentalist Christianity.

Notice I have placed fundamentalist Christianity on its own. One of the greatest ironies described in Geoff's book is the way in which the fundamentalist Christian chaplin contingent resisted inclusivity - one of the core values of the Christ they claimed to follow.

The arrival of a pagan chaplain provides the most powerful aspect of the story. As Geoff describes his own journey coming to know the pagan chaplain and setting a place at the table for her, the essential theme of the book is articulated - hospitality. As Boyce points out, hospitality has been an essential aspect of all faith traditions. So hospitality provides a natural "womb" (my word) to 'nurture spirit, build community'. As the concept of hospitality is teased out we are witness to a highly engaging journey as a group of chaplains struggle to identify a shared purpose for their service to the university community.

Geoff Boyce is a "heart" person and his heart is evident on every page of this book. Told with deep sensitivity and empathy, this book provides a model, not only for chaplains of all faiths, but also for anyone living life in contemporary multifaith societies. We are constantly meeting the Other in our journeys and this book is a delightful piece of wisdom applied to the real world revealing an authenticity not evident in much "spiritual' discourse. It will be especially useful to anyone who is engaged in chaplaincy work.

Book details: Geoff Boyce, An Improbable Feast: The surprising dynamic of hospitality at the heart of multifaith chaplaincy. 2010. Self published (I think) but available on Amazon.

On page 53 of Geoff's book, he introduces the reader to an ancient, but still practiced, pilgrimage that many take to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. It's a long and demanding trek. Along the way, there are the Refugios where pilgrims can stop for a bed, rest, and refreshments. Geoff's brother has completed the pilgrimage and some of his stories are shared in Geoff's book to illustrate aspects of hospitality.

So imagine my delight when Emilio Estevez's movie The Way arrived in my local cinema. The entire film occurs on this same pilgrimage route! And what a delightful movie it is.

Tom (Martin Sheen) receives a call from Spain informing him that his son, Daniel (Emilio Estevez - Martin Sheen's son in real life) has died in a climbing accident near the start of his pilgrimage along the Santiago de Compostela. Tom hasn't heard from his son for a long time and travels to Spain to recover Daniel's body. When he arrives, he decides to have Daniel's body cremated so that he can carry Daniel on the rest of his journey. On the journey, Tom meets various colorful people who challenge his approach to life and death and everything in between.

The Way is a deeply moving meditation. The story is as slow as the pilgrimage but every step is engaging and saturated with meaning. Fortunately, Estevez's directorial hand is light and there is no preaching. Even at the end of the journey, we are left to draw our own conclusions about what each character in the story has gained from their journey. There's a privacy to the experience that is the opposite of the modern inclination to uninhibitedly bare all to the world.

Martin Sheen is excellent as the father and all of the supporting cast bring enjoyable nuances to the story. It's a deeply spiritual film and, at times, favours a Catholic approach to some of the issues it traverses. But it is a satisfying movie in ways that a lot of contemporary cinema isn't. I would imagine that many people would be impatient rather than allowing themselves to be carried on at the pace of the narrative. But it is most definitely worth persevering with this beautifully contemplative fare.

The fact that this movie is a father-son movie with real father and son working together adds an interesting layer to the story. One has to wonder just how much of the move has grown out of their actual relationship - something I'm not willing to speculate about.

Positive Review
'There's a contemplative loveliness to The Way, an affecting personal project both for Emilio Estevez, who wrote, directed, and plays a small role, and for his father, Martin Sheen.' - Lisa Schwarzbaum/Entertainment Weekly

Negative Review
'With "The Way," writer-director Emilio Estevez has made a respectable failure. What's respectable - and undeniable - is that this is a sincere effort to make a film of sensitivity and spiritual richness.' - Mick LaSalle/SanFrancisco Chronicle

You will probably like this movie if you liked The Bucket List, Up, City Slickers, Into the Wild, The Motorcycle Diaries


USA: PG-13



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