Starring: Javier Bardem, Belén Rueda, Lola Dueñas, Mabel Rivera and Tomar Novas
Director: Alejandro Amenábar
Writing Credits: Alejandro Amenábar and Mateo Gil
Distributor: Fine Line Features (USA 2004)
Running Time: 125 minutes
Rated: PG-13 for intense depiction of mature thematic material

THE SEA INSIDE follows the real-life story of Ramon Sampedro, who -- after becoming a quadriplegic in a horrifying swimming accident -- sued the Spanish government for the right to end his life. American audiences, whose exposure to the legal, ethical, and emotional aspects of euthanasia begin and end with the words "Dr. Kevorkian", may discover an elegance to the arguments in Alejandro Amenábar's gorgeous new film that elude the U.S. public discourse. Centered around a powerful performance by Oscar nominee Javier Bardem (Before Night Falls), THE SEA INSIDE gives healthy attention to both its dramatic concerns and social implications, and has the courage of its convictions to never waiver from Sampedro's the way that, say, a Lifetime Movie might treat the same material. But perhaps the film is too accomplished, in some respect; the glossy veneer and luxurious cinematography that wraps this story blunts the psychological brutality of illness and death it tries to capture. THE SEA INSIDE, as beautiful, assured, and professional as it is, lacks edge and power, ending up being significantly less affecting than it should be.

Amenábar, whose gifts with magic realism and atmosphere were put to great use in his last film, The Others (starring Nicole Kidman), has a gift for capturing actors bound by their own bodies. With Kidman, Amenábar built a gothic prison of her own metaphysic devising; in THE SEA INSIDE, Bardem's prison is constructed from his own useless limbs. Having rarely moved from his bed in decades, the wry but morose Sampedro has only a small bedroom window through which his mind can escape, dreaming of flying out and over trees to his most treasured place, the ocean. The ravages of time, the lack of personal privacy, and the weariness of his family have caused Sampedro's mental flights of fancy to slowly dissipate...until the arrival of two women in his life. Rosa (Lola Dueñas), a desperately lonely single mother with a fearlessly inept sense of social propriety, sees Ramon on the television and becomes a regular visitor; Ramon's new lawyer, Julia (Belén Rueda), suffers from a debilitating physical condition herself, and bonds to Ramon over their shared sense of loss. Romance figures interestingly into the relationships with both women, and THE SEA INSIDE, for a brief moment, becomes more than an argument for personal rights and the struggle for inner peace; our personal seas, it argues, can be pulled by the tides of lives outside our own.

Still, THE SEA INSIDE is neither a romance nor a soap opera; it is a drama about the rights of human beings to determine their own fate. This idea of basic freedom is a harsh one when applied to death, and it is on this central point that the film falters. While Amenábar and his co-screenwriter, Mateo Gil, are clearly ecstatic when playing out the fantastical dreams of Sampedro, they seem merely resigned to playing out emotional scenes of family distress...scenes that reek of stereotype (the angry brother, the clueless nephew, etc.).

When it comes to the politics of Ramon's choice to die, THE SEA INSIDE uncomfortably tries to leap the subject. It is telling that arguments for taking one's own life are never presented convincingly, despite many opportunities to do so and with an audience already primed to support Ramon's worldview. The strongest legal argument, it seems, is that since the government does not prosecute failed suicides, self-directed deaths should not be prosecuted, either. If that sounds weak, it is even more so in the context of the film. The reasons that Ramon wants to die make little sense to his family, and for what it's worth, THE SEA INSIDE chooses not to explore them in much argument with a quadriplegic priest on the primacy of life, for instance, is played for laughs rather than for the serious ethical and moral dilemma it is.

Compounding these problems is the style of the film itself, which presents the lush Spanish countryside in a beauteous splendor. The immensely talented cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe (Talk To Her) drenches THE SEA INSIDE with warm colors and opulence; the film often resembles fine landscape paintings in its composition. (I'd be surprised if no one in the audience contemplates a trip to Spain.) Amenábar does the editing himself, and it is smooth and understated. While these touches make the film poignantly gorgeous, it also has the unsettling effect of smoothing out all the rough edges of Ramon's life; the tragic elements of his story suddenly become less so. It is not that we do not understand or sympathize with Ramon's plight; it is more of a disconnect between a man who wants to die, and a film that unwittingly celebrates all the reasons to be alive.

Having already won the Grand Jury Prize and Best Actor accolades at the Venice Film Festival, THE SEA INSIDE is certainly destined for more awards glory. It deserves many of them, including special praise for the work of Bardem, who effortlessly avoids the pitfalls of cinematic disabilities with a nuanced, but never prim, performance. Still, it is doubtful that THE SEA INSIDE will change many minds in the debate over euthanasia. It simply doesn't have the power to be revelatory; it remains within its own melodramatic bonds, tethered to the details but not the spirit of its story. One wonders, if there is indeed another realm we go to after we die, what Ramon might think of the film he inspired. I suspect, like most earthly things, he would lose interest in the very details that fascinate us most.

-- Gabriel Shanks

Review text copyright © 2004 Mixed Reviews. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Mixed Reviews or the author is prohibited.

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