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Wednesday, April 6, 2005

Finding the right to die peacefully

The Sea Inside

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Alejandro Amenabar
Running time: 125 minutes
Language: Spanish
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

The meaning and the reality of what it is "to live" is pursued with quiet but relentless determination in "The Sea Inside." Based on the life of Ramon Sampedro and his collection of poetry (titled "Letters From Hell"), "The Sea Inside" traces his struggle to attain the one and only physical power he could exercise over his body: the power of death.

News photo
Javier Bardem and Belen Rueda in "The Sea Inside"

Sampedro had a diving accident when he was 25 and became paralyzed from the neck down. He spent the next 28 years of his life in a bed in his parents' home in Galicia, Spain, before taking his own life at the age of 53. Prior to that, he had been battling in court for the right to die, but was refused. His plight was televised all over Spain, sparking off a heated debate about euthanasia.

Filmmaker Alejandro Amenabar ("The Others," "Open Your Eyes") was intrigued, less so by this debate and more by the strength, willpower and dignity of a man who had been immobile for close to 30 years, before carrying out this very personal decision, which he also made sure no one close to him could be blamed for or punished for in any way.

At first glance "The Sea Inside" appears to be totally different from Amenabar's previous works. Certainly, elements of fantasy and a stylish, glossy sheen are absent. But we see how the subject is very much in keeping with Amenabar's particular world, a world where people with certain physical attributes (photosensitivity in "The Others," a wrecked and horribly disfigured face in "Open Your Eyes") are made to suffer from alienation and isolation.

In "The Sea Inside" this is all the more painful because until a single incident, Ramon (played with astonishing nuance by Javier Bardem) had been just fine and leading a normal life. If only, if only! The regret is echoed again and again in the frequent leaps back to that fateful day when Ramon, a strapping lad who was a mechanic on a Norwegian merchant ship, makes one miscalculation before diving off a cliff. The camera shows his head hitting, then bouncing, off the ocean floor with a dull thud, his helpless body being churned slowly in the waves. In one stroke, he was condemned to spending his days in bed, writing poems with a pen in his mouth. "Do you call this life?" he asks in one scene, his entire face radiating a resigned and deep sadness.

In real life, Ramon's plea for death brought scores of advocates to his bedside, but Amenabar concentrates on three women. Gene (Clara Segura), who belongs to an organization that promotes euthanasia, Rosa (Lola Duenas), a single mother who sees Ramon on TV and is compelled to visit him, and Julia (Belen Rueda), a lawyer suffering from a terminal brain disease but who takes it upon herself to defend his case.

To Amenabar's credit all three women are portrayed with equal respect to their individual personalities and in not one instance do they turn into cardboard cutouts kneeling by the bed of Saint Ramon (although this was an obvious option). The most disinterested is Gene whose zest and joy in life don't quite match the gravity of her profession. She makes little distinction between living and dying; she obviously believes it's every human being's right to do both with as much liberty and common sense as possible.

Rosa is initially a firm believer in life for its own sake, and lectures Ramon, saying he should "not run away" from the world of the living before he makes her realize how ridiculous her words are.

Ramon's soul mate and true love is Julia, not only because they share a similar predicament but because she seems to be the only one interested in Ramon for what he is beyond his plight and his wish to die. At the same time, she's terrified of her own fate and the gradual but steady decline of her health. She often loses her grip during their discussions, spinning off into a small, personal frenzy of fear and anxiety.

In the meantime, Ramon can do nothing to help her, or even properly express his feelings. When he hears her fall on the stairs outside his room he can't even turn his head to see what has happened, he can only call out her name.

Even this, however, has less of an emotional impact than a fantasy sequence in which Ramon gets up from his bed, stands barefoot on the floor and contemplates the outdoors from his open window. He then walks to the far end of his room before he starts running, running and then flying through the window, swooshing above the trees until he gets to the beach and spies Julia below, walking on the sand. He lands, and puts a hand on her shoulder. "I heard you went for a walk, so I came running to find you," he tells her.

How she looks as she turns and faces him is impossible to express -- the screen just seemed drenched.

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