There is a scene in the movie where a wheelchair-bound bishop tries to make the paralyzed protagonist stop contemplating suicide. Since the bishop can’t climb the stairs up to the bedridden man, they have to shout but the “conversation” leads nowhere. The bishop and his church are simply too rigid. This happened in real life and according to Javier Bardem, who plays the suicidal man, the Catholic Church was critical of this film already in its planning stage. But anyone who approaches The Sea Inside with an open mind will be deeply touched.
The case of Ramón Sampedro was widely discussed in Spain. At the age of 25, the fisherman dived off a cliff and broke his neck when hitting the bottom of the sea. He became a quadriplegic and spent the next 29 years in a bed until he finally got what he wished, and legally fought, for. With a little help from a friend, he committed suicide in 1998 by drinking potassium cyanide. Euthanasia became a hot topic in a country where the Catholic Church still plays a role in many people’s lives.
This movie is without a doubt sympathetic to Sampedro’s cause, but not easily dismissed. We follow him as Julia (Belén Rueda), an attorney, visits him to gather information in order to represent him in court. Sampedro is far from alone; he’s surrounded by a loving family and they have conflicting emotions about his quest for euthanasia. He’s cared for by his sister-in-law, Manuela (Mabel Rivera), who has come to regard him as almost a son and is always fiercely protecting his integrity. Her husband, José (Celso Bugallo), is the only one in the household who vehemently opposes Rámon’s death wish; he chastises his teenage son Javi (Tamar Novas) for not telling his beloved uncle outright that he can’t abandon them by killing himself. But Javi is able to see both sides…
Incredibly emotional scenes
Alejandro Amenábar frightened us with The Others (2001), but this movie is more likely to make you reach for a handkerchief. It has incredibly emotional scenes that tug at the heartstring, but The Sea Inside is not a simple tearjerker. The reason why Rámon touched so many in his struggle was because he made his decision to die after carefully considering the matter for years and years. There wasn’t a an argument against suicide that he didn’t know how to counter in a compassionate and rational way, and that’s reflected in the film. Amenábar shows that Rámon reached his decision not because he was stashed away in some decrepit nursing home but in spite of his family’s care.
In cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe’s view the landscape of Galicia is pretty to look at through the window for Rámon, but also a constant reminder of the place where his life basically ended. There is a beautifully shot but sad scene where Rámon dreams of flying, the bedridden’s hopeless desire for mobility. Bardem is excellent in the part, although I can’t help wonder why an older actor wasn’t chosen; he spends almost the entire movie in fairly heavy makeup.
Still, that design is so well made that I didn’t even recognize the star at first; we completely buy into his transformation. The rest of the cast is equally impressive and their characters are well written, not just there to react to Rámon’s every whim.
The scene where Rámon says goodbye to his family might provoke a good cry. We all fear ending up in his place, being robbed of one’s body. In a similar situation, one can only hope of amassing the power to reconcile with oneself the way Rámon apparently did – regardless of the consequences.
The Sea Inside 2004-Spain-France-Italy. 125 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Alejandro Amenábar, Fernando Bovaira. Direction, music, editing: Alejandro Amenábar. Screenplay: Alejandro Amenábar, Mateo Gil. Cinematography: Javier Aguirresarobe. Cast: Javier Bardem (Ramón Sampedro), Belén Rueda (Julia), Lola Dueñas (Rosa), Mabel Rivera, Celso Bugallo, Clara Segura.
Trivia: Original title: Mar adentro. The story was also told in the Spanish TV movie Condenado a vivir (2001).
Oscar: Best Foreign Language Film. Golden Globe: Best Foreign Language Film. Venice: Best Actor (Bardem). European Film Awards: Best Director, Actor (Bardem).
Last word: “In terms of Javier’s performance, he had to concentrate his energy in the eyes and in the voice. In my case, it was the writing. We thought it wasn’t about moving the camera, but about moving the feelings. In the film, there are these people coming around [Ramon], and I wanted to see life from their point of view. And then I actually wanted to get physically out of the room, so we created ‘windows’ for the audience to get out of the room.” (Amenábar on how to vary the film, The Hollywood Interview)