As I expected would happen, too many reviews of this film (from professionals and amateurs alike) have focused as much if not more on the film's ideology. That's because The Sea Inside (aka Mar adentro) is a film about euthanasia. Specifically, it's a true story about an infamous Galician named Ramón Sampedro, who fought for many years for the right to assisted suicide, who was denied that right by the Spanish constitutional court, and who--well, I don't want to ruin the ending of the film for you.
The real life Sampedro catalyzed a national debate on euthanasia in Spain. Now with producer/director/writer/composer/editor Alejandro Amenábar's (Abre Los Ojos, 1997, and The Others, 2001) "biopic", The Sea Inside, another rhetorical aid has been provided in the international debate on this hot button issue.
But as I keep saying (to deaf ears?), your opinion, pro or con, on the film's ideology shouldn't affect your rating of the film. You're not supposed to be rating the philosophical or political messages that Amenábar wants to make. You're supposed to be rating the film, as a film. Maybe that's a bit too idealistic, as none of us can likely completely divorce our evaluations from our ideological biases, but idealistic or not, that's the goal.
So forget about the philosophical and political issues for a moment. As a film, Amenábar has turned in one of his most elegant and mature works to date. He does not focus on societal debates. He does not focus on Sampedro's legal/political struggles. He focuses on Sampedro as a man, living out his days confined to a bed in his brother's home.
Sampedro, played here in an amazing performance by Javier Bardem, was a quadriplegic. As the film begins, he has been a quadriplegic for 26 years. That condition was brought about, as Amenábar shows us through marvelously shot flashbacks, by a diving accident--Sampedro was distracted by a beautiful woman, miscalculated the water, dove in, snapped his neck, and almost drowned. As a quadriplegic he eventually began writing poetry, some of which was published in a book entitled Cartas Desde El Infierno ("Letters from Hell"); in real life Sampedro's book became a best seller in Spain. Perhaps taking Sampedro's artistic work as a cue, Amenábar has created an elegantly poetic film.
Most of The Sea Inside is set inside Sampedro's bedroom. The focus in these scenes is Bardem's complex and sublime performance. As a quadriplegic, Bardem is limited to moving his head and talking. He has mastered subtle changes of expression and inflection to convey a deep character with a multifaceted, intellectual approach to life. Bardem and Amenábar have Sampedro often waxing philosophical in understated speech, but there's always a combination of a wicked sense of humor, passion for the aesthetic--including music and women, and a sadness and even occasionally bitterness not far below the surface. Different underlying emotions occasionally break through like waves on the skin of the ocean.
The people Sampedro interacts with most frequently facilitate this in complex ways. These others include his sister-in-law, Manuela (Mabel Rivera), who has been his chief caretaker since Sampedro's accident; his brother, José (Celso Bugallo), who is one of the vocal objectors to Sampedro's wish to die, and with whom there is an underlying unresolved issue (it seems like maybe José was the one to save Sampedro from drowning?); his nephew, Javier (Tamar Novas), who is perhaps the most understanding towards him; a right-to-die advocate, Gené (Clara Segura); a pro bono lawyer, Julia (Belén Rueda), whom he wanted because she had a degenerative disease, CADASIL (Cerebral Autosomal Dominant Arteriopathy with Subcortical Infarcts and Leukoencephalopathy), and would thus by more empathic, and who he falls in love with; and Rosa (Lola Dueñas), a local woman who works at a cannery and moonlights as a DJ, who heard about him from the media, who wants to convince him to desire to live, and who falls in love with him.
The bulk of the film consists of these characters interacting with Sampedro in his room. There are also a few other ancillary characters, including Sampedro's father, who remains oddly distant, and a notorious and media-conscious priest, Padre Francisco (José María Pou), who does his best to change Sampedro's mind via philosophy/theology (in a scene often mistakenly characterized as "comic"--it has an attendant comic element, but the scene is primarily very serious).
That most of the film takes place in Sampedro's room ingeniously gives the couple significant changes in setting greater impact. Sampedro's room has a nice, big window, which he says he is satisfied with as an observation point on the world. Maybe even more importantly, he regularly imagines the window as a launching pad through which he flies across the hillsides to the ocean, which he always loved, and which has been the most influential force in his life--it provided his living when he was younger and took his mobility away. Amenábar gives us a fantastical sequence of Sampedro imagining one of his flights to the sea. It is beautifully shot, with low angles (presumably from a helicopter) of the hills rushing by, until we follow a stream to the wide-open ocean, which in this film represents freedom, the infinite, and natural forces.
The other significant change of setting arrives with Sampedro finally taking to a wheelchair (he otherwise refused them, saying they "mocked his immobility") to make an appearance in court to help plead his case. Amenábar gives us a poignant, melancholy travelogue, shot subjectively, of Sampedro viewing life and the world in action from the car window.
Whether you agree with legalizing euthanasia or not, it's difficult to deny that this is a well-acted, well-scripted and well-constructed film. You may not believe that it's a ten (and that's even more unlikely if you disagree with legalizing euthanasia), but it's still worth watching as a fine example of artistic, sophisticated film-making.
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