Javier Bardem Turns The Right-To-Die Melodrama Of The Sea Inside Into Award Material
Until fairly recently, it seemed like every contemporary French film released here had Gérard Depardieu as its star. Depardieu’s omnipresence has abated somewhat of late, but in keeping with the cultivate-one-superstar-per-country strategy, Spain’s Javier Bardem (Before Night Falls, Mondays in the Sun) seems poised to become similarly ubiquitous.
Over the last few years, Bardem has popped up in Spanish and U.S. productions with increasing prominence—especially for an actor hailing from a country whose films (those by Pedro Almodóvar excepted) don’t make much noise over here. The silver lining: You could do a lot worse than Bardem. His latest project, Alejandro Amenábar’s The Sea Inside, sits too squarely in melodramatic territory to be innovative or edgy, but it tackles a thought-provoking topic credibly.
Ramón Sampedro (Bardem) has lived for several decades paralyzed from the neck down, the result of a diving accident. He finds this existence degrading and wants nothing more than to die. However, with himself immobile and euthanasia illegal—making a criminal of anyone who assists a suicide—Ramón’s options to realize this unwavering desire are few. Forced to play a legal waiting game, his thoughts, fantasies, hopes—not to mention his nightmares—increasingly revolve around the sea that robbed him of the use of his limbs. Given all its massive power to immerse, envelop, and consume, the sea perhaps promises the resolution he’s awaited since his accident: death.
Ramón has long lived with an unchanging circle of faces: his brother, who strongly opposes Ramón’s death wish, and the rest of his brother’s family, who wrestle with their love for Ramón and their desire to see his wish fulfilled. But as Ramón’s case garners more publicity, two new women enter his life: Julia (Belén Rueda), a lawyer, herself physically disabled, who offers to take on Ramón’s case, and Rosa (Lola Dueñas), a local single mother who naively believes she can convince him that life always holds possibilities for happiness.
The Sea Inside represents both a homecoming and an interesting change of pace for Amenábar, who directed two whip-smart Iberian thrillers (Thesis, Open Your Eyes) before coming to America for The Others. This latest effort contains little moments reminiscent of Amenábar’s previous work, particularly the dreamy visual flair of Ramón’s fantasy sequences and the heartstopping visceral impact of the re-creations of Ramón’s accident.
For better or worse, however, this film breaks from Amenábar’s previous work in most other ways. The Sea Inside essentially amounts to a based-on-a-true-story melodrama with a political point—namely, that Ramón should have the legal right to die, with dignity and as little pain as possible. One gets the sense that Bardem and Amenábar are more than capable of avoiding all the narrative predictability and tear-duct-purging this genre frequently entails, but that they’ve instead chosen to focus on artfully delivering exactly what we expect.
One of the most memorable sequences comes in a visit from Padre Francisco (José María Pou), also afflicted with paralysis, who finds Ramón’s desire to die disgracefully immoral. Padre Francisco attempts to sway Ramón with arguments both theological and practical, but finds his intellectual adversary has ready answers for all such objections. Amenábar sets this scene up beautifully: Both participants in the debate are shown to have made a reasonable decision for themselves, but only one assumes his decision should apply to all others in similar straits.
On the surface, this scene departs from social-issue picture convention—Ramón is, after all, arguing passionately for death—but it ultimately validates our expectations, given how convincingly Amenábar establishes our hero’s claim to the moral upper hand. Similarly, the film’s concluding scenes could have easily collapsed into a laughable, overwrought mess, were it not for Bardem’s nuanced control of the way in which his face emotes. It’s one of many expected scenes executed with unexpected acumen.
The Sea Inside carries itself as a respectable, workmanlike effort that, due to its subject matter, will not appeal to everyone. For Amenábar, it’s an unexpected project that maintains his status as a world-class director to watch. It’ll be as interesting to see what film he comes up with next in the coming years as it will to see the next five to 10 films Bardem wraps over the same period. Most of them will be distributed over here, and most of them will be pretty good.