Lead performance propels Best Foreign Film Oscar winner The Sea Inside
The story of a quadriplegic’s lengthy and very public struggle to arrange for his own death may not sound like a very inviting subject for a movie. But Alejandro Amenábar’s The Sea Inside, the Spanish picture that won this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Film, not only steers clear of that story’s temptations to morbid soap opera, it also proves itself as a surprisingly engaging and multi-faceted drama.
Based on the story of Ramon Sampedro, a Spanish quadriplegic who waged a lengthy campaign in the 1990s on behalf of his own right to die, Amenábar’s film rides a superb, touchingly articulate performance by Javier Bardem in the role of Sampedro. But if the pathos and intelligence of Bardem’s Sampedro are at the center of the film’s fascination, there is even greater appeal and interest in the emotional and psychological complexities that arise via a half-dozen distinctively sketched secondary characters.
Amenábar’s film enters the story at a point where Sampedro, paralyzed since early adulthood and for more than half his life utterly dependent on family members, seeks out legal assistance from a “death-with-dignity” activist (Clara Segura) and a lawyer (Belén Rueda) who is herself suffering from a degenerative disease. His public efforts to gain legal permission for assisted suicide produce a series of crises in his own family and lead to the acquaintance, and an increasingly complex relationship, with a working-class single mother named Rosa (Lola Dueñas).
Sampedro’s unexpected emotional entanglements with both Rosa and Julia the lawyer give The Sea Inside some potent elements of unconventional romance, and those developments complicate his already diverse relations with his own family. The contrasting affections of his sister-in-law Martha (Mabel Rivera) and nephew Javi (Tamar Novas) and the conflicted sympathies of his brother (Celso Bugallo) and father (Joan Dalmau) make the dynamics of Sampedro’s unorthodox quest all the more provocative.
A dark-humored confrontation with a quadriplegic priest (José María Pou) gives Sampedro’s story its most explicit encounter with religious doctrine. But the film as a whole seems less concerned with making a case for assisted suicide than with exploring the mysteries of Sampedro’s remarkable character as well as those of the people swept up in his unfolding drama.
The title of this film, after all, seems a metaphor for the depths and flow of a dimension of experience that is both within us and beyond us. And Amenábar combines Sampedro’s flashbacks and his fantasies of flight and release from immobility in ways that suggest that the man’s deepest motivations shimmer namelessly in the vicinity of his declared intentions.