Death be proud 

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What's with Javier Bardem and suicide? The Spanish actor portrayed Cuban poet and AIDS victim Reínaldo Arénas, who asks his lover to smother him in Before Night Falls. Now, in The Sea Inside, Bardem stars as quadriplegic Ramón Sampedro, who wants to die by euthanasia.

'The Sea Inside' explores euthanasia

This is a year of biopics. Some are whip-smart and well-assembled (Kinsey comes to mind), some feature a brilliant performance, but little else that's outstanding (Ray), and others spread across the sad descending spectrum from blah to Alexander.

Alejandro Amenábar isn't the first filmmaker you'd expect to make a biopic. The young Chilean popped up on the English-speaking radar with the head-trip Open Your Eyes (remade as Vanilla Sky) and The Others, in which Nicole Kidman met Henry James. But The Sea Inside does take a real man's life as its subject: Ramón Sampedro, a quadriplegic from the Spanish province of Galicia who became famous for his decades-long campaign for the legal right to end his own life.

Happily, the filmmakers bit off only the segment of Sampedro's life they could chew. We meet him in his final months, as he enlists the help of sympathetic activists and lawyers to help him make his case public. We see snatches of the young Ramón's life, but they're in the form of easily managed flashbacks - they're only what we, and the newcomers who are just meeting him in the movie, need in order to understand the current action. Thus we are spared some of the clichéd biographical landmarks that littered screens this fall.

Another good sign is the cast. At the center of a strong ensemble including Talk to Her's Lola Dueñas and relative newcomer Belén Rueda is Javier Bardem, who in addition to being one of the most captivating men in today's world cinema is also one of this generation's most fascinating actors. It is very difficult to be bored when watching him, and although his physical appeal may be hidden here - he meets the real-life Sampedro halfway by adding some pounds, losing some hair, and aging his face - the nuance that he brings to the role is invaluable. As Ramón tells a visitor early on, lifelong dependence on others has taught him to "cry with a smile." Putting aside his desire to die, all of us might wish to handle debilitation as he does: He maintains a worldly detachment and a courteous charm that belie the anguish within. (To get a sense of that, we have to hear the private poetry he writes, in which putting up a good front isn't necessary.)

The Sea Inside

Dir. Alejandro Amenábar; writ. Amenábar, Mateo Gil; feat. Javier Bardem, Belén Rueda, Lola Dueñas, Mabel Rivera, Celso Bugallo, Clara Segura, Joan Dalmau (PG-13)
Watching Sampedro flirt with the lovely women who visit, seeing the care he gets from his family, and recognizing that he has a rich mental life, viewers may find it hard to believe that his life as an invalid is so bad that he truly wants to die. (Ramón is careful to point out that he does not believe a paralyzed life isn't worth living for anyone; it just is for him.) And throughout the movie he is beset by people who want to, as a self-righteous priest suggests, "make him want to live." The film insists that we accept that a sane, thoughtful person might choose suicide, though, and encourages us to side with euthanasia advocates. Without painting Spanish authorities (or Ramón's family members, who refuse to help him end his life) as devils, it suggests that the "Death With Dignity" movement is one that will be proved right in generations to come as the human conscience evolves.

As one would expect from Amenábar's earlier work, The Sea Inside is a nuanced film filled with beautiful moments, such as the scenes in which Ramón imagines stepping out of his bed and flying the few miles to the coast. At heart, though, it's a more conventional story than the filmmaker's head-trip past would suggest. Sequences in which time passes via montage or letter-writing feel so familiar they could be taken from any number of American prestige films. In the end, although Sea is a more solid picture than Ray (and it has more substantial things on its mind), this is another case in which one man's performance is the most compelling reason to see a film. Then again, if Ramón Sampedro was anywhere near the engaging man he is in this film, that may be entirely appropriate.

By John DeFore


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