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Monday, February 16, 2009

Countdown To Oscar: The Sea Inside

* * *
Best Foreign Language Film, 2004

Director: Alejandro Amenabar
Starring: Javier Bardem

What makes life worth living? That is, without a doubt, an intensely personal question and one which you can only ever answer for yourself. Why is it, then, that the idea of a person deciding that his or her life is not worth living can become a matter of debate amongst complete strangers? The Sea Inside is about one man’s fight for the right to die and the effect that fight has on those in his immediate circle and on his society in general. The subject is a difficult one and the film approaches it as sensitively as it can, which is perhaps part of the problem: though the film is good, it also feels a bit soft.

As a young man, Ramon Sampedro (Javier Bardem) dove into shallow waters and broke his neck, leaving him a quadriplegic. For the next 30 years he would fight for his right to end his life while living in a room in his brother and sister-in-law’s home, rarely leaving. He refuses to use a wheelchair, believing that it presents an illusion of freedom and movement, a mockery of what he once had. He is miserable, he says, and feels that a life spent trapped in his own body is the worst kind of hell. It’s difficult to argue that he’s in an unenviable position and that his pain is very real but, at the same time, an argument could be made that life is what you make of it and that he’s miserable because he’s simply given up on life. The film doesn’t really focus enough on his reasons for wanting to end his life, choosing instead to simply have him say over and over that he’s miserable even as he’s surrounded by people who love him, even though his mind has still retained its sharpness, even though he’s found ways to do things like write, allowing him to express himself through poetry.

Ramon hires Julia (Belen Rueda) to represent him and fight for his right to assisted suicide. He chooses her specifically because she suffers from a degenerative disease and he believes that this will make her more sympathetic to his cause. He’s correct in this, as she herself has thoughts of committing suicide rather than living with the agony of her disease, and the two form an intense bond that turns to love in spite of the fact that she’s married. You might think that this newfound love would give both a reason to live after all, but the effect is actually opposite, making both more determined to die and, in fact, to die together.

Though many friends support Ramon’s desire to end his life, his family takes a different view. His brother (Celso Bugallo) fights with him intensely on the issue, and his sister-in-law (Mabel Rivera) has similarly strong feelings. She, in particular, is insulted by the suggestion that the last 30 years of his life have been nothing, an attitude which she feels detracts from the love and care that the family has given him since the accident. She has devoted much of her life to him, acting as day-to-day nurse for him while also raising her son, and she goes so far as to say at one point that Ramon is himself like a son to her, which is perhaps part of the problem as Ramon sees it. The age difference between them is slight and yet, here he is, reduced to the status of a child in her eyes – his life has become an embarrassment to him and if he cannot return to the life he was leading before the accident, then there is nothing left for him in the world.

The Sea Inside isn’t really a crusade movie, though it has all the makings of one. Little time is spent in the courtroom and, in the grand scheme of things, only a small portion of the film is really dedicated to discussing the legality of Ramon’s quest, which he sees as an individual struggle and not a universal one. He’s fighting for himself and himself alone, not for everyone who wants to claim the right to determine their fate in this way. He isn’t looking to become anyone’s hero and the film is good in the way that it grounds him and keeps him from being deified within the context of the story.

Thinking about the film afterwards, the word that came up for me time and again was “fine.” This is a fine film, but not one that inspired any particular passion in me. For all the skill that has gone into it both in front of and behind the camera, it ultimately fails to reach the heights to which it strives.

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