The Sea Inside

(Mar Adentro)


There is something very reassuring about Javier Bardem and Alejandro Amenabar. These are two hot Hollywood commodities who decided to straddle Hollywood and their native Spain, making movies they want to make, rather than films that will make money. This is especially so for Bardem, who came to the notice of American audiences with his Oscar nominated turn in Before Night Falls. While he did appear in Collateral, he has chosen roles carefully, appearing in films like Second Skin (which was made before but released here after Before Night Falls), Mondays in the Sun, and The Dancer Upstairs. The same goes for Amenabar, whose Open Your Eyes allowed him to make The Others (Vanilla Sky, based on Open Your Eyes, doesn't count). Instead of moving to a higher profile Hollywood, this DIY guy (he writes, produces and even scores his films) and Bardem decided to make The Sea Inside, a moving story based on the life of Ramon Sampedro, a quadriplegic who fought for three decades for the right to end his own life.

It's very important to note that while assisted suicide is a political hot topic, The Sea Inside is an apolitical film. Yes, the main character crusades for the right to die, but other characters are just as fervently against it. This is the story of Sampedro's battle, and how it affected him and those around him. Amenabar, who co-wrote the screenplay with Gil Mateo (Vanilla Sky, Nobody Knows) sidestep politics and focus on the human story behind Sampedro, which is much more moving. And none of this is possible without Bardem's astonishing performance. He is better than he was in Before Night Falls, yet failed to receive a nomination this year. For most of The Sea Inside, Bardem is bedridden; old and balding. Most people know what he looks like otherwise, so the physical transformation itself is impressive. More impressive is how he is able to express adroitly emotions using a minimum amount of movement. His character can only move from the neck up, so Bardem has to use subtler things like his eyes and his inflection. It really works.

The film finds Sampedro slowly working his way through the legal system. He wants the government to give him the right to die. Some of his friends believe that his case may help others in the future, and to this end they hired lawyer Julia (Belen Rueda) to help him with his case. Sampedro is hoping he can legally kill himself, but if this doesn't work, he has plans to enlist the help of multiple people in an elaborate scheme where each person does a small task. Sampedro lives with his father and his brother's family, and they act as his caretakers. Over the course of the film, he also befriends Rosa (Lola Duenas, Soccer Days, Talk to Her), a single mother. There is an informal détente between Sampedro and his family, all of whom are vehemently opposed to his intentions. Sampedro's life is confined to his bed. He can look out the window, but is too proud to go outside in his wheelchair. Instead, he writes and invents, and has a razor sharp mind. Amenabar and Bardem portray Sampedro as brimming with life. They allow the viewer to watch as Sampedro becomes close to both Julia and Rosa, and how full of life and energy he is. A few time they go into his head as he imagines himself walking or flying, which makes his conditional all the more heartbreaking.

Here is the inherent conflict that the people around Sampedro feel. Why does this person so overflowing with kindness towards his family and friends want to end his life? Sampedro instead believes that he is a burden to all those around him. He wants to die with dignity instead of living off everybody else. His bed is a prison for him, and death is the only way to escape. The portrayal of the relationship between Sampedro and Julia is especially touching. Amenabar takes his time, and allows people to watch the two get to know each other. In Julia, Sampedro found a kindred spirit, somebody he can relate to and somebody that understands him better than most other people. This is the first non-thriller for Amenabar, and he shows real growth as a writer. In fact, given his resume, a film like The Sea Inside seems like a very strange choice for him. What he did was use his sense of pacing (used to great effect in his other films) and applied it differently. The Sea Inside moves slowly, but this allows Amenabar and his actors to explore the personalities of their characters, and to really involve the audience in their struggles. There was a bit of grumbling when Spain chose this film over Pedro Almodovar's Bad Education for its entry for the Oscars, but after watching the two, it seems like the obvious choice to make.

Mongoose Rates It: Pretty Good.
2 hours, 5 minutes, Spanish with English subtitles, Rated PG-13 for intense depiction of mature thematic material.

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