I dreaded seeing Alejandro Amenábar’s new film, The Sea Inside, about the Spanish quadriplegic Ramón Sampedro who became an international cause célèbre for the assisted suicide movement. Besides my aversion to death and dying as subject matter, there was Amenábar’s stylish yet empty track record to consider: the repulsive Abre Los Ojos and the half-baked The Others. Yet my fears of slow torture were unfounded. The Sea Inside marks a tremendous leap forward for Amenábar as a director to watch.
“Now imagine a movie screen opening up before you,” the voice of an unseen woman guides us at the very beginning of the film, and out of an unfocused haze emerges that screen within the screen, which gradually encompasses the larger frame, one filled with fantasy images of a pristine, sunny beach, an isolated oasis of bottle-green waves washing the shore, as the woman’s voice continues, “the sensation of peace is infinite.”
Amenábar takes neither a literal, kitchen-sink approach nor a sentimental one to Sampedro’s 28 years of waiting to die. He gives us, as radical as it may seem, a movie. Meaning images that move. Amenábar, who also edited The Sea Inside, uses interesting cuts to break up the film’s long talks.
For example, Julia, a lawyer who herself suffers from a degenerative disease, interviews Ramón about what his life was like before his near-fatal plunge into the sea. The scene begins with the two of them conversing in real time, then switches to her listening to the playback on her tape recorder. As the audio re-plays, Julia smiles, thinking of Ramón as he once was. In a spellbinding double montage, the movie flashbacks to the diving accident that left him paralyzed, to his damaged body floating supine underwater as he remembers snapshots from his world travels, recalls his life as a ship mechanic, and there, too, in the present is Julia as she flips through old photos—his memory and her imagination intertwine. Julia, in finding out whom this cagey, prematurely aged man was “before,” falls in love with a phantom. Amenábar uses fantasy to arrive at a great, tantalizing sorrow: we can see that in a perfect world, Ramón and Julia (Romeo and Juliet?) would have met in their physical prime.
Julia gradually relaxes around Ramón; she begins to smoke in front of him, and they share puffs on her cigarette as she props against him in bed. He tells her of sending his girlfriend away, once he became paralyzed from the neck down, and Julia says, “There are other ways to make love.”
Amenábar never stoops to eroticizing their disabilities. The actors, Javier Bardem as the immobilized Ramón, and the beautiful Belén Rueda as Julia, who initially walks with a cane and ends up in a wheelchair, make these scenes smolderingly sexy on their own. Rueda gives such an accomplished, instinctive performance, it’s hard to believe that she’s a former game show hostess in her native Spain, a television star who’s worked mostly in sketch comedy. With The Sea Inside, Rueda belies such humble origins. Bardem, who’s 35, convincingly inhabits a character 20 years older than himself. It isn’t just the age makeup he wears; it’s something radiant from within that eludes explanation. And Bardem hasn’t had this quality in every role: he bored me blind in Mondays in the Sun and Before Night Falls.
Strikingly well photographed by Javier Aguirresarobe, The Sea Inside takes place, most of the way, at the Sampedro family’s rustic stone farmhouse in La Coruña, where Ramón lived under the care of his sister-in-law Manuela (a fine portrait of unsentimental devotion by Mabel Rivera), a handsome yet vacant young nephew, and a resentful older brother. Sampedro loved opera, and the soundtrack resonates with Wagner and Mozart, each spin of the vinyl occasioning a close-up of needle on shellac. At one point, we hear the tenor Jose Miguel Zapata sing “Nessun Dorma” from Puccini’s Turandot. A breeze through an open window billows the white transparent curtains of Ramón’s bedroom. He rises from bed, stands, and walks into the hallway. He stares ahead at the ajar window. He seems about to break into a run and jump. In a sequence that borders on religious ecstasy, Ramón—from the camera’s point of view—flies. He soars on the wings of Zapata and Puccini over wooded hills, rocky terrain, sparse brush, and ultimately to the sea, where he lands by Julia who’s been strolling on the beach, and he kisses her.
In addition to these stunning romantic passages, Amenábar and his co-scenarist Mateo Gil succeed on another front: a willingness to attack the church. There’s a fiercely comic scene, worthy of Buñuel, in which a pious priest, also a quadriplegic, arrives uninvited to the Sampedro house to debate Ramón. Only the padre’s wheelchair won’t fit up the narrow staircase, and Ramón obviously cannot come down. The two men argue back and forth via a young cleric who, flush with confusion, serves as their go-between. (Alberto Amarilla, using his face and eyes expressively, has a small triumph as this intermediary.)
Although Amenábar insists his movie takes no sides on the euthanasia issue, The Sea Inside becomes a powerful statement in favor of the Right to Die with Dignity. The current political climate in America, with the worthless George W. Bush, our Jesus-nut-in-chief, denying stem cell research out of respect for “life” while waging his idiotic assault on the Middle East, assuredly needs a work of this caliber to stimulate some definitions of freedom. — NPT
November 17, 2004