Live and let die

Javier Bardem, with Belén Rueda, gives an Oscar-worthy performance from the neck up in <i>The Sea Inside</i>.

Javier Bardem, with Belén Rueda, gives an Oscar-worthy performance from the neck up in The Sea Inside.

Rated 4.0

Alejandro Amenábar’s powerful Spanish film The Sea Inside won the foreign-language Oscar at the Academy Awards ceremony earlier this week, and it was only the latest of more than three dozen prizes the movie has racked up. With all the international attention it’s gotten, it’s surprising that The Sea Inside hasn’t provoked the protests that have dogged Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby (another big winner at Sunday’s Oscars), considering the similar themes the two films explore.

Million Dollar Baby sparks objections while The Sea Inside doesn’t—that’s discouraging evidence that foreign films have become essentially irrelevant in America today. But Amenábar’s movie is well worth checking out and provides a thoughtful two hours in the theater.

The movie is a fictionalized telling of the story of Ramón Sampedro, a merchant seaman who was paralyzed from the neck down in a diving accident in 1968 and spent the next 30 years lobbying the Spanish government to permit him to die; his dilemma was that his death would necessarily require the assistance of others, and he didn’t want to leave his friends or family liable to charges of homicide.

Javier Bardem plays Ramón, both in the mid-1990s to late 1990s (where the 35-year-old Bardem is artfully made up to look like a man in his 50s) and in flashbacks to his accident, where we see him briefly (and agonizingly) in the full vigor of youth, before an improvident plunge into the surf snaps his neck. Amenábar returns repeatedly to that day, with Ramón floating helplessly in the ocean, face down, on the brink of drowning before a friend pulls him out. In these moments, Amenábar and co-writer Mateo Gil suggest that Ramón believes he was supposed to die that day and that his long decades of helplessness—rather than his desire to die—are the true violation of the natural order.

The people around Ramón all react differently to his crusade to end his life. His brother José (Celso Bugallo) and sister-in-law Manuela (Mabel Rivera) both love him in different ways. José refuses to countenance the idea of suicide under his roof, even as he bridles at how Ramón has turned him and his family into his slaves (the unspoken corollary to his accusation is “And now you want us to be your murderers!”). Manuela, on the other hand, tends to Ramón’s needs with diligence and devotion, unsure of what’s right or wrong and wanting only for him to be happy.

Into this group come two women. One, Julia (Belén Rueda), is a human-rights attorney, herself slowly dying of a degenerative disease, who agrees to help Ramón with his case. The other is Rosa (Lola Dueñas), a single mother and part-time disc jockey who hears about Ramón on TV and travels to his home to meet him; she promptly falls in love with him and tries to convince him that life is worth living after all. The subtle changes these two women go through (which are best left to the viewer to discover) cast an ironic light on Ramón’s situation and provide a thematic counterpoint to both sides of the right-to-die argument.

In a confrontation between Ramón and another quadriplegic, a priest who tries to argue him out of dying, Amenábar and Gil crystallize the debate. The priest thunders: “Freedom that takes a life is not freedom,” and Ramón retorts, “Life that takes away freedom is not a life.” Amenábar and Gil take no sides in that confrontation (beyond playing the priest as a pompous windbag), but they do give the last word to Manuela, who tells the priest that while she isn’t sure what’s right, she does know one thing: “You have a big mouth.”

Human touches like that, along with Bardem’s almost cheerful performance, keep The Sea Inside from sinking into lugubrious depression. Amenábar’s camera keeps restlessly moving, both emphasizing Ramón’s immobility and compensating for it, taking us into his dreams, where he can not only walk but also fly, soaring out his window and away to the sea that he so misses. In these moments the movie soars, too.

In the end, Ramón Sampedro’s pursuit of death leads those around him to cherish their own lives all the more. Amenábar’s movie becomes something of a paradox: a story about suicide that is somehow life-affirming.