The Sea Inside

UK release date: Mar 26 2008

cast list

Javier Bardem
Beln Rueda
Lola Duenas
Mabel Rivera

directed by
Alejandro Amenbar

Alejandro Amenbar’s directorial career has thus far largely dealt in unexplained phenomena: Tesis, Abre Los Ojos (remade by with Tom Cruise by Hollywood as Vanilla Sky), and The Others, which starred Nicole Kidman.

The Sea Inside (Mar Adentro) is quite a different beast. Based on a true story, the film has the physically powerful Spanish actor Javier Bardem playing quadriplegic Ramon Sampedro, in a role that demands he convey every subtle expression with his face and voice alone. Bardem, his body inert, his face lined and his hair gone, is barely recognisable as the actor we see in flashback. Sampedro has a bright mind – he’s thoughtful and articulate, has written poetry and listens to opera, but he spends every day confined to his bed. In dream sequences he imagines himself floating over Galicia and down to the coast he loved so much.

30 years earlier, as an athletic young man, Ramon dived into shallow waters, and his body shattered by the impact, would’ve died, but for the intervention of a friend. His body now wasted away, he no longer wants to go on, and campaigns for the right to die. We know from the offset that the story’s conclusion will either see his wish granted, or that he will have to call on loyal friends and family to assist his suicide.

Rather than just being a film about despair and helplessness, though, The Sea Inside is about love – about Julia, the lawyer with the debilitating illness who wants to help Ramon die; Rosa, the young woman with a chaotic life of her own who befriends him and wants him to live; his frail old father; the sister-in-law who has nursed him for years like a baby; his nephew, who Ramon thinks of as his own son; and Ramon’s proud, hard-headed older brother, whose own love for his brother manifests itself in a refusal to co-operate in euthanasia.

Bardem’s performance invests Sampedro with a real dignity. We know that he cares just as deeply about those around him, and only rarely does his anger rise, at the attitude of state and church to his plight. In a blackly comic scene, a quadriplegic priest who has already angered the Sampedro family comes to visit the house but is unable to get his motorised chair up the narrow stairs. He sends a young cleric running frantically up and down to Ramon’s room as a go-between, before eventually the priest and Ramon engage in a frank exchange of views yelled down the stairwell.

The Sea Inside is principally about two of his relationships: that with Julia (Belen Rueda), who he chooses to take his case, because he reasons that as a person with a serious illness, she will understand his state of mind; and with Rosa (Lola Duenas), who works in a factory and is bringing up two small children alone, but who wants to be there to help him at every turn, inspired by seeing him speak on television.

When Julia collapses while visiting the house and is forced to use a wheelchair, her interest in her client becomes personal. Ramon’s sister-in-law Manuela shows her his poetry and old photographs, and she recognises a passion and tenderness that helps her to understand his state of mind.

Both Rueda and Duenas give remarkable performances, especially the former, a well-known Spanish TV personality making her film debut, but Bardem dominates every scene he plays, without overplaying, lending empathy to a role that lesser actors might have struggled with. If it’s possible for any movie about euthanasia to be life-affirming, then this is it.

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