Title: The Sea Inside
Genre: Biography, Drama
Director: Alejandro Amenábar
Screenwriters: Alejandro Amenábar, Mateo Gil
Starring: Javier Bardem, Belén Rueda, Lola Dueñas
You have to give Alejandro Amenabar credit — he does his darndest to make The Sea Inside, the true story of a paraplegic who fought to end his own life, something more, or at least something other than, an “issue movie.” The copious symbolism, lyrical flashbacks and attempts at tender, understated character moments all hint at a herculean effort to give the movie some arthouse cred. The great irony, though, is that The Sea Inside is at its best when it lets loose with its most lurid movie-of-the-week cliches, when the soundtrack soars and we see children frolicking, couples kissing, windmills turning, as our paralyzed, beaming leading man goes off to fight for his death.
Characters who are bedridden for the length of a film are difficult to deal with dynamically and unsentimentally. Amenabar throws in the towel on the second point, having Javier Bardem, as famed euthanasia advocate Ramon Sampedro, smiling mournfully for roughly 95% of his screentime. But though the movie has no compunctions about being an Oscar-time tearjerker, it is skillful enough to get us through it — Javier Bardem isn’t one of the most prolific Spanish actors for nothing, and Amenabar brings some nuance to an otherwise predictably mournful tone.
As for the problem of making the story of a paraplegic seem kinetic, Amenabar chooses to deal with this in an amusingly direct way by occasionally hurling the camera out of Ramon Sampedro’s window and rocketing across a diverse landscape before eventually reaching the sea which, of course, is the protagonist’s doom and salvation. The movie doesn’t journey through Sampedro’s psyche, per se — indeed, we are mostly forced to take him at his word w/r/t his mindset — but it represents his inner state in vague, accessible terms, allowing us to appreciate his dilemma in a way that seems “lyrical” and as comfortable as possible. It is not the most courageous approach.
In a way, though, it almost doesn’t matter. The issue is a potent one, both emotionally and politically, and the movie takes a position and doesn’t compromise. Oh, there’s a certain amount of equivocation, just so no one gets the wrong idea — a right-to-die activist is forced to comment that her organization doesn’t go out and tell people to commit suicide; they support freedom, you see, “the freedom to live, the freedom to die” — but aside from that, Amenabar stands by his liberal stance. And in paradoxically making Sampedro’s quest to die the meaning of his life, he finds an effective framework in which to convey it.
Where The Sea Inside fails, for the most part, is where it has higher ambitions — to be a character study, a high-brow indie, an understated drama. Amenabar introduces the character of Rosa, a single mom who naively shows up at Sampedro’s house to “show him that he has something to live for,” but the relationship between them soon grows ridiculous — Ramon Sampedro helps a woman with low self-esteem! The ponderous, overcooked dialogue also gets tiresome; these characters speak in weird, declarative sentence fragments (“Look at you. Sitting there.”) and if this movie makes it big, the script will be ripe for parody. For a more thoughtful — if more tangential — treatment of this subject, may I recommend Denys Arcand’s The Barbarian Invasions.
But when it works, it works, and it works best as a simple issue movie, a well-executed cinematic essay. Its starkest insights are practical — the idea of how difficult is for a crippled man to end his life is striking, for example — and its strongest moments are rudimentary movie pleasures — when acting, editing and music combine for a predictable visceral effect. It’s not life-changing stuff, but it’s splendid if you don’t mind real-life, life-or-death issues being turned into pure entertainment.