The film is a portrait of Turkey in the aftermath of the 1980 Turkish coup d'état: its people and its authorities are shown via the stories of five prisoners given a week's home leave. The film has caused much controversy in Turkey, and was banned until 1999. However, it won numerous honours, including the Palme d'Or at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival.
In Turkey, several prisoners are granted furlough. One, Seyit Ali (Tarık Akan) travels to his house and finds that his wife (Şerif Sezer) has betrayed him and works as a prostitute. She was caught by her family and held captive for Seyit Ali to end her life in an honor killing. Though apparently determined at first, he changes his mind when his wife starts to freeze while travelling in the snow. Despite his efforts to keep her alive, he eventually fails. His wife's death relieves Seyit Ali from family pressure.
Another prisoner, Mehmet Salih (Halil Ergün) has been arrested for his role in a heist with his brother-in-law, whom he abandoned as he was being shot by police. His in-laws have disowned him, and he is finally forced to tell his wife Emine (Meral Orhonsay) the truth. Emine and Mehmet Salih decide to run away on a train. On the train, they are caught in the washroom having sex. They are saved from an angry mob by the train's officers and held in a cabin before being handed over to officials. There, a young boy from Emine's family who boarded the train shoots both Mehmet Salih and Emine.
Ömer (Necmettin Çobanoğlu) returns to his village sitting near the border between Turkey and Syria, and arranges to cross the border to escape prison. Ömer finds his village in a battle between Kurdish smugglers and Turkish soldiers. Though Ömer is clearly determined, he gives up after his brother, who took part in the battle, is shot dead. Through his brother's death, Ömer has inherited the responsibilities of his brother's wife and children as dictated by tradition.
Güney wrote the screenplay, which contained elaborate detail, but could not personally direct as he was in prison. Güney initially recruited Erden Kiral as his surrogate director, but displeased with Kiral's work, had it destroyed and fired him. This became the basis of Kiral's later film, Yolda.
Güney subsequently hired Serif Gören. There were rumours that several prisoners, including Güney, watched much of Gören's footage on a wall at the prison. Güney later broke out of prison to edit Yol in Switzerland.
Zulfu Livaneli made the musics of the movie, but due to political atmosphere then in Turkey, he used a nickname Sebastian Argol in order to avoid from possible sanctions from Turkish courts which were then operating under 1980 Turkish coup d'état.
The film was banned in Turkey because of its negative portrayal of Turkey at the time, which was under the control of a military dictatorship. Even more controversial was the limited usage of the Kurdish language, music and culture, forbidden at the time, as well as the portrayal of the hardships Kurds live through in Turkey. One scene in the movie even calls the location of Ömer's village "Kürdistan".
A new version of Yol was released in 2017, called Yol: The Full Version in which many of these controversial parts and scenes have been taken out, to make the film suitable for release in Turkey. In what critics say goes against the director Yılmaz Güney's wishes and call "censorship", the frame showing "Kürdistan" as well as a highly political scene where Ömer speaks about difficulties of being Kurdish were removed. Certain scenes, images and dialogues of political importance have also been taken out of this new version.
The rights to Yol were disputed for a long time. Even during Yilmaz Güney's lifetime, there were major conflicts about the ownership of the film between Güney and Donat Keusch, the head of a Swiss-based service company called Cactus Film AG, who claimed to own the entire rights of the film. After Güney's death, the dispute escalated between Keusch and Güney's widow.
When Keusch filed for bankruptcy with his Cactus Film AG in 1999, the situation became even more complicated and resulted in numerous lawsuits in both Switzerland and France. There still are numerous sellers in the market claiming to be the sole owner of the world rights to Yol, and the film is offered in different versions through different distribution channels.
According to the bankruptcy office Zurich Aussersihl Keusch received the rights which still remained in Cactus Film on March 4, 2010. This happened without a cash reward so to speak for free. Keusch also sent this contract to the RCA-directory of the French CNC (film number 2010.2922) trying to use it as a proof that he has rights. However it is very questionable if and what rights Cactus Films still had at this point. In any case Keusch could only get from the bankruptcy office rights that cactus film had since no bankruptcy office can create non existing rights.
Vincent Canby, writing for The New York Times, wrote that while the film addressed significant issues, this did not make it great art. Canby described it as "a large, decent, ponderous panorama". Time critic Richard Corliss declared Güney "a world-class moviemaker".
In his 2015 Movie Guide, Leonard Maltin gave it three stars, describing it as "Incisive". In 2016, The Hollywood Reporter ranked it the 65th best film to win the Palme d'Or, saying the production was a better story than that on screen.
The film won three honours at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival, tying for the top prize, the Palme d'Or, with Missing by Costa-Gavras. The film was selected as the Swiss entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 55th Academy Awards, but was not accepted as a nominee.