Sea Inside, The (Spain/France/Italy, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

At the age of 26, Ramon Sampedro misjudged the depth of water he was diving into and broke his neck. For the next 29 years, he lived the life of a quadriplegic - one that he considered not worth living. Despite having lost the use of his body below the neck, he still had a voice and a mind, and he put both of those to use, waging a one-man war for the right to die: his right to die. In one impassioned statement, he wrote the following: "I... think that living is a right, not an obligation. Nevertheless, I have been obligated to tolerate this pitiful situation…" He was a tireless soldier in this battle, but, because of the forces allied against him - religious leaders, conservative activists, and even his own brother - the conflict seemed hopeless. Since he could not accomplish the deed on his own, he needed the help of others. However, the law would prosecute accomplices for aiding him, and Ramon was unwilling to subject another to such a penalty, so he was trapped.

In the late 1990s, as Ramon's case made its way through the Spanish courts, he became not only a national celebrity, but one whose story reached beyond the shores of Spain. Even America's ABC-TV did a feature on him. But it was after his death that the controversy exploded, especially when his "open letter" to the legal, political, and religious authorities in Spain was made public. In it, he made the following damning accusation: "It is not that my conscience finds itself trapped in the deformity of my atrophied and numb body; but in the deformity, atrophy, and insensitivity of your consciences." Now, albeit with a few fictionalizations, Ramon's story has been transformed into one of the best movies of 2004.

Although Alejandro Amenábar has not yet reached the level of achievement of his countrymen and fellow filmmaker, Pedro Almodovar, his limited resume to-date (Thesis, Open Your Eyes, The Others) has shown him to be someone to watch. With his latest production, The Sea Inside, he departs from the realm of the thriller and tries for something that deals more deeply with the human heart. Ramon's story spoke to Amenábar, and he decided that this was a movie he had to make. So, turning his back on the potentially lucrative Hollywood career beckoning as a result of the success of The Others, he returned to his roots in Spanish cinema.

The Sea Inside is so far from a typical "euthanasia" movie that it's startling. Whenever Hollywood tackles this subject (which doesn't happen often - this isn't a topic that packs in the crowds), the melodrama and manipulation go into overdrive. Not here. Amenábar maintains a low-key approach that preserves the film's emotional integrity while still making a powerful statement. And, because Ramon is such a forceful presence and positive influence, there are times when The Sea Inside is uplifting. This is a movie that may cause viewers to both laugh and cry.

When the story opens, Ramon (Javier Bardem in a titanic and moving performance) has been confined to his bed for 28 years. During all his time as a quadriplegic, he has been fighting for the right to die, because he believes that his existence has become "a life without dignity." Now, as he faces the culmination of his court battles, he writes a book with his new lawyer, Julia (Belen Rueda), with whom he has fallen in love. But even this new spark of emotion does not change Ramon's mind, and, with or without the court's consent, Julia expresses a willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice and help him. Other key figures in Ramon's life are his sister-in-law, Manuela (Mabel Rivera), who cares for him and sympathizes with him; his brother, José (Celso Bugallo), who refuses to acknowledge Ramon's pleas for death; and Rosa (Lola Dueñas), a local DJ who opens her heart and life to Ramon.

Although it's clear where Amenábar's sympathies lie, that doesn't prevent him from offering arguments to support both sides of this potentially charged issue. To his credit and the film's betterment, he does not shortchange or dumb down either position. Points and counterpoints are presented in both the intellectual and emotional arenas. Does a person have the right to die if he decides that "life that costs freedom isn't life?" And which shows the greater love: to keep someone alive or to help them take their life? The Sea Inside tenders no facile explanations or resolutions, but makes us feel the answers in our hearts.

Although most of what transpires during The Sea Inside is drawn from Ramon's real-life story, there are some changes. The most notable of these is that the character of Julia represents a composite of "a group of women who loved Ramon." There was no single lawyer who worked with him in this manner. Also, although there was a genuine "Rosa," the woman bore a different name. And the ending of the film shows things that are part speculation and part fact.

As we watch The Sea Inside, we become Ramon - bursting with life, humor, and intelligence, yet unable to reach out and bridge even the shortest distance to his loved ones. "Dependence comes at the cost of intimacy," he comments at one point, and we understand. I can think of few things more frustrating than being unable to touch my wife. I can understand wanting to die in this situation, yet I can admire a man like Christopher Reeve for soldiering on.

In what may well be the role of his career, Javier Bardem (who was previously nominated for an Oscar in Before Night Falls) blows away the competition to give the most stirring and riveting male performance of 2004 (besting even Jamie Foxx's turn in Ray). Bardem imbues his character with such vigor that it's impossible not to be drawn in to Ramon's situation. He acts only with his voice and face, yet those are more than enough to fashion one of the most memorable characters in recent cinema. Belén Rueda, who plays Julia, is a television mainstay moving into films, but she shows the poise and presence of a motion picture veteran. Lola Dueñas, a respected Spanish actress best known in the international community for playing the nurse in Talk to Her, gives us a solid second emotional touchstone outside of Ramon.

For a movie about a man battling for the right to die (an inherently somber subject), The Sea Inside contains a fair amount of humor. Especially memorable is the exchange between Ramon and a quadriplegic priest that involves an intermediary running up and down stairs. Then there are the dual romances (Ramon and Julia, Ramon and Rosa), each of which has its own tone and nature, yet both of which are heartfelt and radiate longing. Like the rest of Amenabar's most mature film to-date, they are sublime.

Sea Inside, The (Spain/France/Italy, 2004)

Director: Alejandro Amenábar
Cast: Javier Bardem, Belén Rueda, Lola Dueñas, Mabel Rivera, Celso Bugallo
Screenplay: Mateo Gil, Alejandro Amenábar
Cinematography: Javier Aguirresarobe
Music: Alejandro Amenábar
U.S. Distributor: Fine Line Features
Ranked #5 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2004
Run Time: 2:05
U.S. Release Date: 2004-12-17
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Mature Themes)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: English subtitled Spanish
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1