..

THE SEA INSIDE

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Javier Bardem, Belén Rueda, Lola Dueñas, Mabel Rivera, Celso Bugallo, Clara Segura
Director: Alejandro Amenábar
Audio: Spanish 5.1 or stereo surround
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Video: Color, 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen
Studio: New Line
Features: A Trip to The Sea Inside documentary, director commentary, galleries, trailers, deleted scenes
Length: 125 minutes
Release Date: May 17, 2005

"Ramón, why die?"

Film ****

Euthanasia has been one of the more controversial topics in cinema lately.  Among recent films, Alejandro Amenábar's Mar adentro (The Sea Inside, 2004) is the one that most intimately studies this subject, choosing the true story of Ramón Sampedro as an illustration of the emotions and arguments surrounding a person's right to end his or her own life.

The real Ramón Sampedro was a quadriplegic who as a young man had been paralyzed in a diving accident.  He spent the remainder of his life in a decades-long quest for permission to end his own life voluntarily and with dignity.  Sampedro eventually passed away, although his personal plight received some degree of publicity in the final years of his life, particularly with the posthumous publication of his autobiography, Letters from Hell.  This collection of writings over the years expounded upon Sampedro's personal views and revealed a literary gift fortunately not diminished by the limitations of his physical handicap.

Sampedro's life story interested director Alejandro Amenábar, best known to American audiences as the director behind the Nicole Kidman horror film The Others.  The Sea Inside would be only his fourth feature, but its subsequent international acclaim and accolades, including an Oscar for Best Foreign Film, firmly established Amenábar as a major directorial talent in Spanish cinema.

Much like Hitchcock's Rear Window, The Sea Inside takes place mostly in the lead character's bedroom.  While there are some exterior locations and scenes with secondary characters, too, the focus is primarily on Ramón Sampedro and the world as he sees or experiences it.  Much of his interactions occur with the occasional visitor or with his immediate family - an older brother and wife, a nephew, and the aging father.  Ramón's bedroom window is quite literally his only window to the world, and in moments of ennui or inner thought, Ramón has flights of fancy and day-dreams about the world just beyond his window.

The film opens in the latter years of Ramón's life with the arrival of a lawyer, Julia (Belén Rueda), to the family farm in the Galician countryside.  In response to Ramón's communiqués, she has agreed to take on his unusual case regarding euthanasia at no charge.  In actuality, Julia has her own personal though earnest motivations for wishing to help Ramón.

During Julia's various visits to the farm, she gradually learns more about Ramón's life and his personal outlook on life, not only from candid discussions with him but also from samples of his writings over the years.  One central theme has haunted Ramón's thoughts for the last several decades - a desire to end his own life with dignity.  As a former sailor, Ramón was a young man accustomed to whirlwind motion and constant travels.  But his present reality is as one stripped entirely of youth and mobility.  While there remains in him a sense of vitality and wise composure, with dreams and creativity intact, Ramón's physical impairment forces him to endure a monumental daily test of his beliefs and faith.  Over the decades since his accident, he has focused his energies upon a single determined goal, as he has come to regard his handicap as a prison from which there is but one escape.  During one early interview session with Julia, Ramón illustrates this point by stating, "You're sitting there, three feet away.  But for me, those three feet are an impossible journey."

Thus, The Sea Inside is less about the central character's transformation during the course of the film (Ramón's attitude has been set by this stage in his life) and more about how he influences or changes those around him.  Two women in particular, Julia and Rosa, are much affected by their encounters with Ramón.  While Julia may serve as Ramón's lawyer, she quickly empathizes with his plight, and he in turn will serve as a stabilizing anchor for her own moral or personal dilemmas (the character of Julia was based on several real women who each in her own way admired, helped, or loved Ramón Sampedro).  Rosa (Lola Dueñas), based on Ramona Maneiro, is another young woman inspired by Ramón; frustrated by the tribulations in her own life, she visits Ramón one day perhaps for guidance and eventually grows to love him.

Other secondary characters are fleshed out quite realistically in the film.  Manuela (Mabel Rivera) is the devoted sister-in-law who along with Ramón's brother, José (Celso Bugallo), has taken care of him over the years.  For his part, José strongly disapproves of Ramón's personal crusade, and José's voice provides one of several counter-arguments in the film.  On the legal side, there is also Gené (Clara Segura), another who has championed Ramón's legal struggle to die with dignity.  However, the legal aspects of the film are truly secondary to the plot and are given only scant on-screen time.  The Sea Inside is not a courtroom drama, nor is it a lugubrious exercise in self-pity, and rightly so.  Instead, it focuses on the characters and their relationships.  It is more about familial love and the emotional ties which unite people beyond distance or physical impairment.

Despite the somber theme of the film, there are many instances of light touches and humor.  Ramón's interactions with his young nephew and even with Rosa's young children reflect a kindly, gentle touch to his nature.  Another humorous sequence involves a not-entirely successful debate with Padre Francisco, a quadriplegic priest who has traveled to Ramón's home in the hope of impressing upon him the precious gift that is life.  Both men are as stubborn as mules, and the discussion proceeds nowhere.

As Ramón, Javier Bardem is truly a revelation.  Bardem is a Method actor (fortunately he did not take the Method too far), and he is completely convincing not only as a quadriplegic but also as a man two decades his senior.  Bardem's performance is poignant and readily identifiable without resorting to histrionics or emotional manipulation, and it stands as a testament to the real Ramón Sampedro.  Bardem was very deserving of his Best Actor Oscar nomination (and he probably would have won, too, had his role been in English).

The year 2004 was an unparalleled one for the bio-pic genre.  While most of the publicity went to American films such as The Aviator (about Howard Hughes), Ray (about Ray Charles), or Beyond the Sea (about Bobby Darin), the best bio-pics were actually foreign films.  After the outstanding The Motorcycle Diaries (about Che Guevara), the best bio-pic of the year was easily The Sea Inside.  Both Spanish-language films were character studies which focused predominantly upon the joys of human existence and compassion.  Because these films recounted only small portions of their central characters' lives, they possessed tighter plot cohesion and ultimately provided greater emotional resonance than their over-blown American counterparts.  If you are interested in bio-pics and are not afraid of non-English language films, then by all means check out The Sea Inside, or The Motorcycle Diaries.

Video ****

The Sea Inside looks very good.  Amenábar has chosen natural hues and tones for his film, which possesses a realistic color palette.  While some digital effects were used in the film, they are essentially invisible and practically impossible to spot without reference to the documentary or feature commentary included on this disc.  The transfer is solid, and the image quality is pristine.  Detail levels are excellent, and I did not detect any blatantly obtrusive mastering defects.

Audio ****

Be forewarned.  There are at least three "Spanish" languages spoken in this film - Catalan, Galician, and Castilian.  As a result, even native Spanish speakers will some trouble with the dialogue from time to time, so keeping the English (or Spanish) subtitles on is well-advised.  The sound is not aggressive but is fairly immersive, nonetheless, and helps to bring the viewer into Ramón Sampedro's world, both his stark reality and his day-dreams.

The subtle sounds of the waves and the ocean throughout the film are quite important, too.  They symbolize not only Ramón Sampedro's continuing inner struggles but are also a representation of his symbolic death, the tragic occurrence early in his life that paralyzed him and the haunting memories that have played in his mind ever since.

Features ****

"There's only one thing worse than having a child die on you - for him to want to die."

First and foremost among the bonus features is A Trip to The Sea Inside (84 min.), a very extensive documentary chronicling the creative process behind the making of The Sea Inside.  Starting from the script-writing sessions through location scouting and set construction and actual filming, this is a true blood-and-guts look at the making of a film.  We can also see Javier Bardem as he visits various hospice settings and health professionals in preparation for his role and his convincing metamorphosis into a quadriplegic for this film.  Included are rehearsals with the actors and technical discussions with Amenábar about camera positioning and frame composition, editing, and scoring.  There are brief glimpses of the real Ramón Sampedro in this generally excellent documentary, probably one of the best available on any DVD this year.  Keep in mind that the documentary is presented in Spanish, although English subtitles are available.

Next, there is a feature commentary by director Alejandro Amenábar.  It is presented entirely in Spanish with English subtitles.  Most of the topics are already addressed in the documentary on this DVD, so Amenábar merely adds further details or coloring to the proceedings, such as when he describes incidents of artistic license in the film or sequences based on actual events in Ramón Sampedro's life.  As such, the commentary is a good supplement to the documentary but can be bypassed by anyone not particularly keen on reading subtitles for a commentary track.  Of note is that Amenábar does take some time to consider how he himself might act, placed in Ramón Sampedro's terminal situation.

There are three photo galleries.  The first (32 photos) is comprised of cast and crew shots.  A storyboard gallery (32 frames) shows the storyboard sequence of a pivotal scene in the film.  The third gallery (17 paintings) shows artwork created for the set design.

Trailers are included for The Sea Inside, Mike Leigh's controversial Vera Drake (another extremely good bio-pic), and Jean-Pierre Jeunet's A Very Long Engagement (starring Audrey Tautou).

There are three deleted or alternate scenes.  "I Want You to Go" is an extended version of an argument between Julia and her husband (only a couple of seconds of this scene exist in the film as part of a montage).  "Julia Changes Her Mind" is a later scene between Julia and her husband; it's incredibly moving - a pity it was deleted.  Lastly, "Dedication" is a scene in the garden between Manuela and her son as they read a dedication in Ramón's book.  In total, there are about six minutes' worth of rather nice scenes which were deleted only because they dealt with secondary characters.  I'm glad these scenes are available again on the DVD.

Lastly, there is a web-link, and clicking on the New Line icon brings up the DVD production credits.

Summary:

A transcendental if ultimately poignant film, The Sea Inside tackles a highly controversial topic - the right to die with dignity - from a very personal viewpoint.  Featuring a stellar performance from Javier Bardem and generally fine performances all around, The Sea Inside is a film that will touch your heart regardless of your stance on euthanasia.  It is more a re-affirmation and profound celebration of life than of death and is easily one of the best films of 2004!

FREE hit counter and Internet traffic statistics from freestats.com