This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site, theOneliner.com
Mar adentro, or The Sea Inside for the English speaking sector charts the more or less true life tale of a certain Ramón Sampedro (Javier Bardem), a man left paralysed from the neck down after taking a long dive into a short pool of water. Cared for by a loving family, chiefly his sister in law Manuela (Mabel Rivera) and nephew Javier (Tamar Novas), despite (or perhaps because) of his active mind he feels that life in his current condition has no dignity. As such, he wants to end it all.
This is difficult to do when you can’t move, and euthanasia is frowned upon in that neck of Spain as well as near enough everywhere else. Help comes in the form of lawyer Julia (Belén Rueda) and the ‘Death with Dignity’ movement headed (seemingly, although I confess it’s not something I’ve checked) by Gene (Clara Segura). After establishing that Ramón is compos mentis they set about an arduous legal battle to allow Ramón the right to shape his own destiny that the accident removed, even if that will be a rather short-lived destiny.
As much as The Sea Inside‘s thematic subject is unavoidably intertwined with Ramón’s personality, at heart the controversy that this has no doubt generated amongst the PyschoChristan RightWing Alliance (again, not checked but it’s the sort of thing they usually get uppity about) is almost tangential to enjoyment of it. In terms of a character study, this is a hairs width away from being described as a masterpiece.
Javier Bardem isn’t someone we’ve seen much of in Blighty, along with Spanish cinema in general, but given the plaudits rightly festooned on his performance and this film it won’t be the last we see of him. It’s an expertly judged, witty, moving and affecting turn, the only downside being that it threatens to completely overshadow the fine supporting acting. From the very first moments you spend with Ramón you know him, and after about ten minutes you’ll also care about him. With that established so early Bardem and director Alejandro Amenábar would have only had to keep things ticking over to produce a decent film, but thankfully they decide to go for the emotional jugular and have created something special indeed. Compare this to the vaguely similar The Barbarian Invasions and the leap in quality is so astonishing that the notices that the earlier French Canadian flick garnered seem even more incomprehensible.
The mark of a truly great film is not only is it enjoyable but it makes you consider something. Even if this is something along the lines of, “Man, Arnie killed a lot of people“. The Sea Inside aims higher and hits it by forcing an audience to think about euthanasia and the people that the laws on this subject effect. It’s also the one area where it’s possible to pick a few flaws, as the only people speaking out against Ramón are treated fairly dismissively. Most notably is the verbal bitchslapping administered to quadriplegic priest Padre Francisco (José María Pou), although the common argument of “It’s against God’s will” is largely indefensible when Ramón is an atheist. It’s perhaps wise that these arguments are skipped over as there’s no logic behind it apart from centuries old dogma and church sponsored meddling in government, and misses the real argument against it that Amenábar works in so subtly that you won’t even realise it.
There is a very limited scenario in which Ramón’s essential position of “It’s my body to do what I like with as long as I’m not hurting others” holds absolutely, and that’s one where Ramón has no friends, no family, and no one caring for him. Were this the case the problem largely solves itself as he wouldn’t last long, but Ramón has a family who love him greatly, and friends who love him greatly. It’s most apparent in Rosa (Lola Dueñas)’s character, one initially dead against Ramón’s way of thinking but who comes to love him. To paraphrase It’s a Wonderful Life, when Ramón is no longer there it’s going to create some pretty big holes. The more I think about this, the less clear cut the matter becomes, and this is coming from someone fairly well entrenched in the ‘Right to Choose’ camp in this matter.
That The Sea Inside makes you think about this at all is very welcome; that I’m still thinking about it days later is a mark of something very special indeed. Allow me to redress a few points for the sake of balance, as this isn’t entirely the Ramón show. The supporting cast would seem to fade into the background slightly, but that is in a sense their greatest achievement. There seems to be an utterly believable family dynamic established by the film about twenty minutes before the movie starts and you’ll never question that this is a realistic portrayal of Ramón’s relatives and his friends, regardless of whether it’s accurate or not. Plaudits all round, especially in the case of Ramón’s father who portrays more emotion with occasional glances and expressions than a film full of David Gales.
Given the bedbound state Ramón finds himself in this could have become a visually spartan affair, but Amenábar works in a good variety of shots and some very beautiful landscapes, even if the way they get there can seem a tad contrived. In the interests of balance I’ve been trying to think of things I didn’t like about this film and I’m largely drawing blanks. Preferable to firing them I suppose. The ‘best’ I can come up with is that I had a vague feeling of it being slightly too long, but this is such a subtle feeling as to write it off as within a margin of error for feeling anything.
Simply, it is a very good film. Not only that, it’s a very good film with a point that doesn’t feel like it’s preaching and isn’t condescending, which is a difficult thing to do (see aforelinked The Life of David Gale for examples of how not to handle it). In a slightly pretentious sense, this makes The Sea Inside cinema as it was meant to be, a movie with a message that’s also damned enjoyable. This deserves to be rewarded, and the meagre best that I can do is dig deep into the well of Tippymarks.