The Sea Inside is the true story of Ramón Sampedro (Javier Bardem), a quadraplegic poet who fought tirelessly with the Spanish Government for the right to end his own life. In the opening scenes of the film we see a youthful Ramón suffering a broken neck after a diving accident goes disasterously wrong. The bulk of the film then takes place thirty years later with Ramon bed-ridden, his world entirely revolving around the claustrophobic prison of his room in a Galician farmhouse.
Human contact is confined to Ramón’s family and the three very different women who come into his life. Gené (Clara Seguara) is a right-to-die activist who recruits lawyer Julia (Belén Rueda) to fight on Ramon’s behalf but who also suffers from a terminal degenerative disease. Single Mother and local DJ Rosa (Lola Dueñas) falls in love with Ramon and vigorously attempts to persuade him to value his life again.
The precociously talented Alejandro Amenábar follows Tesis (Thesis, 1996), Abre Los Ojos (Open Your Eyes, 1997) and The Others (2001) with a film for which he is clearly master and commander, co-producing, co-writing, editing, directing and even composing the sweeping score for a remarkable labour of love. This provocative, issue focussed melodrama is clearly a departure from Amenábar’s previous metaphysical horrors. Yet cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe’s fingerprint is clearly present, reminding us of the dreamlike, contemplative tones he brought to The Others and Almodóvar’s Hable Con Ella (Talk to Her, 2002).
His flourishes of magic realism seek to show us the inner world of Ramón. Long, luxurious camera sweeps take us out of his bedroom across the fields and towards the sea of northern Spain. This serves both to present the intellectual escapism the character must conjure in order to remain sane as well as highlighting the deep longing and hunger that Ramón knows will never be satiated.
This potential for the film to become a self-indulgent, melancholy polemic is diffused partly thanks to the wonderful script by Amenábar and his Abre Los Ojos co-writer Mateo Gil. But be aware. This is not a balanced dialogue on the pros and cons of the euthanasia debate. The Sea Inside is a film with a real need to convince the audience that the right to die is an existential human prerogative for which ‘assisted’ suicide is sometimes a moral necessity.
Javier Bardem is an inspired and risky choice for the role of Ramón. Utterly transformed and aged thirty years thanks to the remarkable achievements of make-up artist Jo Allen (The Hours, 2002) Bardem needs to be commended for his sensitive and under-stated performance. Confined to his bed for the vast majority of the film and unable to move any part of his body other than his head, Bardem chooses to opt for quiet subtlety rather than erratic over-compensation.
The avoidance of an angry, bombastic performance is the key to what lifts the film from being a maudlin, cliché riddled weepy into an intriguing and powerful melodrama. Bardem’s study is reined in and complex. The knowing smile etched across his face for the majority of the film is a mask and an ironic challenge to those who wish to change his mind. This consistent, warm smile confuses the viewer at first, lulling us into the belief that the character is content until the touching moment when Ramón explains. ‘When you can’t escape and you depend on others so much, you learn to cry by smiling.’
It is a curious feeling to be so attracted to a lead character and to share his needs and desires when they are focussed so pointedly on his own death. The achievement of both Amenábar and Bardem is their slow peeling away of Ramón’s character so that when he is able to fulfil his goal we welcome it with bittersweet relief. The film has already stomped through awards ceremonies picking up the Grand Jury Prize and Best Actor gong at the Venice Film Festival. It is thanks to Bardem’s acting and Amenábar’s conviction that the film also plucked the 2005 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, particularly given the subject matter and morally ambiguous climax.
The Sea Inside is the story of a man morbidly nostalgic for his previous life as a sailor and the freedom that the sea symbolises in his fantasies. The same sea that cruelly took away his independence leaving him incapable of controlling his own destiny. For Ramón ‘life is a right, not an obligation.’