Review: The Sea Inside

The Sea Inside

With lyricism and motion, and with life as the focal point, Alejandro Amenabar's subtitled Spanish movie about a man fighting for the right to die, The Sea Inside, stimulates both the senses and the mind.

Opening with the sound of deep breathing, which becomes the sound of swishing waves coming ashore, Amenabar's follow-up to The Others is subtle and powerful.

Barely recognizable Javier Bardem (Before Night Falls) is Ramon Sampedro, a paraplegic who was Spain's first person to demand the right to die, and he gives an affectionate, moving performance. But, with themes that unfold through intensely moving characterizations, this is not solely Bardem's domain.

From the beginning, Ramon (Bardem), a sailor whose full life was cut short by a diving accident, is a dominant presence. He resides at a farm run by his family, which includes his father, his brother, his sister-in-law and their son. It is a toiling existence, with Ramon—the liveliest person on the farm—imprisoned in stifling solitary confinement while waging an endless battle versus the Spanish state, which denies his right to choose life or death.

Amenabar dramatizes what constitutes life from Ramon's perspective, in whispering narrative, soaring Puccini and a breathtaking fantasy that stirs the senses—and comes crashing back to the reality of Ramon's dilemma: retaining self-esteem while being forced to depend on others.

The others upon whom his life depends include sensual Julia (Belen Rueda), a lawyer who meets Ramon's criteria that whomever argues his case in court be afflicted with a degenerative disease. Julia, a married woman troubled by her own sickness, and aided by Ramon's caretaker, sister-in-law Manuela, discovers Ramon's life before injury when rummaging through old poems and photographs. The ingeniously arranged snapshots permeate the movie.

Though Julia forms a romantic bond with Ramon, The Sea Inside is not a love story. It is a life story, told in highly stylized realism. Paralyzed Ramon flirts with every woman within ten feet—he smiles, he charms, he winks—but always like a benign ghost reminding the haunted that he'd rather not be there.

Among those who aim to change his mind is  working-class Rosa, a wreck of a single mother who is drawn to him, and a crippled priest who uses guilt to persuade Ramon into accepting pain as a cross to bear. In one of the funniest scenes, Ramon debates the priest from his bed. The priest, who cannot make it up the stairs to deliver his diatribe, calls up the stairwell in exasperation: "Freedom without life is not freedom!" Ramon erupts in outrage: "Life without freedom is not life!" The exchange, depicted with humor, abruptly ends with an outcry that is the movie's credo: "Leave Me Alone!"

That phrase returns in an entirely different context through another character, and it underscores Amenabar's skill as a storyteller. Ramon—and his estimate of life—is the constant frame of reference. Each character—whether an aid or an obstacle—is self-contained, yet Amenabar, with co-writer Mateo Gil, presents every characterization as a means to the end that is Ramon's life—and his relentless pursuit to reclaim it by ending it on his own terms. Ramon watches, he listens, he trades—like a doomed sailor in his final port of call—with life as a celebration of the values he exchanges.

Julia is Ramon's soulmate, a gentler version of Jeanne Moreau, who transforms smoking a cigarette into an act of elation. Earthy Rosa (Lola Duenas) is charming, then annoying, then pitiful and finally angelic. Handsome young nephew Javi (Tamar Novas), plopping on Ramon's bed to watch a soccer match, is impetuous; Ramon's tender sister-in-law Manuela (Mabel Rivera) personifies goodwill, and Ramon's miserable brother Jose (Celso Bugallo) isn't half the man healthy Ramon is handicapped—and he knows it. Navigating these choppy waters is a fiery idealist named Gene (Clara Segura), Ramon's lady comrade in the struggle for freedom. Rational, healthy and happy, Gene is a genuine heroine.

References to feelings and hunches blur the picture, and The Sea Inside is missing an explicit philosophy. Amenabar's reliance on narration leaves a loose end with an unread letter that begs to be revealed. But characters are defined by actions, not just words, and Amenabar—lingering on a face, a gesture or a sunset—creates a potent, rhythmic affirmation of what it means to be alive.


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DVD Notes

Leaving no stone unturned, the single-disc DVD edition for writer and director Alejandro Amenabar's The Sea Inside is all encompassing from start to finish. The 85-minute documentary, A Trip to The Sea Inside, is practically a personal tutorial from the young director, who takes the viewer to Furnas Beach with true behind the scenes narration and video—not overproduced publicity fluff with no purpose—in a step-by-step guide to making the movie.

Among the highlights: footage of the real Ramon Sampedro, which authenticates several important scenes in the movie, Amenabar at work on his Macintosh with writer Mateo Gil, script readings with Javier Bardem and every aspect from conceptualization, controversy over the Catholic priest scene, and music, with composer Amenabar, who can't read a note, singing to a group of musicians—and then seeing and hearing the finished scene.

The documentary is technically exhaustive and illuminating about the process, though everything on this disc is best understood in Spanish and subtitles move too fast. Sound, lighting, casting—it's all here, which makes A Trip to The Sea Inside almost worth watching before the movie. Other features include an outstanding audio commentary by razor-sharp Amenabar, who addresses what's happening on screen, and—besides the trailer and deleted scenes—storyboard, set and photo gallery stills.

A version of this article originally appeared on Box Office Mojo in 2004.

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