In the opening scenes of Alejandro Amenábar's wonderful new movie, The Sea Inside, a Galician man, Ramón Sampedro (Javier Bardem), lies in his cramped bedroom gazing through a window that gives out onto a panoramic view of the restless ocean several miles away. In his dreams Ramón flies across lush green fields to the sea; in reality he can't even walk there. Magnified flashbacks show us the terrible diving accident that left him paralyzed from the neck down and transformed him from a burly, vital specimen of young manhood into a leonine head perched incongruously atop a shrunken, lifeless body. Now in his mid-50s, this unrepentant secular rationalist has spent the intervening 30 years fighting for the right to die in a society where the state and the Catholic Church have linked arms to prohibit assisted suicide.
There really was a Ramón Sampedro, and if Amenábar, who was inspired by the quadriplegic's memoir, Letters From Hell, has done him justice, he was a man worth knowing. As played by the extraordinary Bardem, Ramón is not bitter, but neither is he the cookie-cutter plucky saint so beloved of catastrophic-injury moviemaking. He reigns over what he calls, only half in jest, his kingdom, ministered to with devotion and varying degrees of grace by family members (Mabel Rivera is outstanding as his careworn but fiercely loyal and empathic sister-in-law) who are painfully divided over his quest to die. As Amenábar tells it, Ramón lives what many able-bodied and far lonelier people would call an enviably rich emotional life. Armed with a dry wit and a worldly wisdom born of a life scaled down from wide experience to keen observation, this cultivated autodidact is also a magnet for women, though for entirely different reasons than those that attracted them when he was a lusty young ship's mechanic. Two in particular come to love him and play a part in his fight to die, but also to depend on him: Julia (played by Spanish television personality Belén Rueda), a sophisticated lawyer whose passion for his cause is shaped by her own degenerative disease, and with whom Ramón enters into a love affair all the more intense for its chastity; and Rosa (Lola Dueñas, who played the nurse in Almodóvar's Talk to Her), an excitable basket case with two children and a disastrous history with men.
What makes The Sea Inside such a riveting drama is that none of these relationships is sufficient to make Ramón want to go on living. From the beginning, he has insisted on his right to die not because he can't walk, but because his life has lost all dignity. To the perfunctory degree that the movie addresses Ramón's legal battles, it is simplistic and barely gives the time of day to opposing sides of the enormously difficult debate around euthanasia. There's a funny scene, whose manipulations nonetheless made me shift uneasily in my seat, in which Ramón and a similarly disabled priest who has come to talk him out of his decision trade barbs up and downstairs through a scurrying church factotum. Predictably, the priest gets the worst of the argument.
Only 32 years old, Amenábar, who made Open Your Eyes (the original, good version of Cameron Crowe's overheated Vanilla Sky) and the atmospheric, if slight, The Others with Nicole Kidman, may lack the intellectual chops to take on a topic as incendiary and full of nuance as assisted suicide. But he is an exquisitely expressive filmmaker, and it's this, together with Bardem's stunningly calibrated performance, that gives this painterly blue-green movie its haunting beauty. The Sea Inside is not the story of a legal struggle, or even of a man with a wasted body. It's about the evolution of a disillusioned yet unbowed spirit from the animal exuberance of the young stud we see in flashback, to the bleary, suffering, yet amused and passionate eyes that look out from the disused shell of his body. Let's hope Bardem learns the lesson of Antonio Banderas and sidesteps all offers to become Hollywood's next cute Spanish mascot. There's not a moment in the film when you don't buy this 35-year-old actor as an older man approaching his death with the dignity he's sought all his adult life.
It's far from a smooth passage. Let down by one of the women who have promised to help him, Ramón goes through a crisis of self-doubt that's both exacerbated and resolved by the long overdue realization that his craggy older brother, who has always opposed Ramón's decision, gave up a life he loved as a fisherman to care for him. The crisis passes, help comes from an unexpected quarter, and Ramón elects to record his quiet passing on video, in a kind of tutorial that's as brave and beautiful a document of his death as Amenábar has made of his life.
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THE SEA INSIDE was Directed by ALEJANDRO AMENÁBAR; Written by AMENÁBAR and MATEO GIL; Produced by FERNANDO BOVAIRA and AMENÁBAR; and stars JAVIER BARDEM, MABEL RIVERA, BELÉN RUEDA and LOLA DUEÑAS. Now playing at SELECT THEATERS.