Sea Inside, The (2004): Amenabar’s Oscar Winning Film, about Spanish Poet Ramon Sampedro, Played by Javier Bardem

Based on a true case, The Sea Inside is the extremely touching story of the Spanish poet Ramon Sampedro (Javier Bardem), who fought for 30 years for his right to end his life with dignity and respect.
Remarkably, as co-written by Alejandro Amenabar and Mateo Gil and as directed by Amenabar, The Sea Inside is not a social-problem film about euthanasia, as it might seem on the surface, but a profound meditation on love–the different forms and expressions of love.

The Sea Inside is Spain’s official submission for the Foreign-Language Oscar, but it deserves a serious consideration in all other categories, including Best Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actress, and Screenplay. This has been a good, but not great, year for American movies, and The Sea Inside might benefit from it.

At the center of the tale is a triangle revolving around Ramon and the two significant, but very different, women in his life. Julia (brilliantly played by Belen Rueda), a lawyer who supports Ramon’s cause, is contrasted with Rosa (Lola Duenas), a local woman who tries to convince Ramon that life is worth living, at all costs, even he has spent in bed, totally immobile in bed. The relationship is not one-sided. Through the mysterious phenomenon called love, both Julia and Rosa are inspired by Ramon and get to experience feelings they had never thought possible before.

Despite his wish to die, Ramon taught all those he had met in his life the meaning, value, and preciousness of life. Physically, he himself could not move without help, but he had the uncanny ability to move others.

It’s an unusually mature film for Amenabar, who’s only 32 year-old. He had made an audacious feature debut with Thesis, a film unseen in the U.S., at the age of 23. Best-known to American audiences for his direction of The Others, a ghost story starring Nicole Kidman, he has previously directed the fantasy/drama Open Your Eyes, which was later poorly remade into Vanilla Sky by Cameron Crowe, starring Tom Cruise and Penelope Cruz.

Amenabar’s specialty seems to be subtle, though-provoking films, but without neglecting the emotional dimensions. One of the recurring issues in his work is the fine line between life and after-life. In all of his pictures, Amenabar has taken risk and shown willingness to explore uncharted arenas of human psychology and dreamlike states. As a result, his movies accomplish the rarest achievement, particularly for American pictures: They connect with audiences viscerally and intellectually.

When the film begins, Ramon, a former ship mechanic, has been paralyzed in bed for 30 years. Living in a rural farm, he is lovingly and tenderly taken care of by his family. Sampdero has different kinds of interactions with each family member: His sister-in-law Manuela (Mabel Rivera), his older brother Jose (Celso Bugallo), his father Joaquin (Joan Dalmau), and particularly his teenage nephew Javi (Tamar Novas).

Despite his injury, Ramon’s attitude is upbeat; he often bears a warm smile on his face. His sole wish is to bring his life to a dignified end. Ramon’s confined world is literally and symbolically opened up with the arrival of the two women, Julia and Rosa, and their encounters forever change the trio’s lives.

Like Ramon, Julia has lost her mobility, and she now walks with a cane due to a degenerative disease. Julia spends time with Ramon, helping to promote his controversial effort (actually legal campaign). Staying in his house, Julia develops genuine attraction for him. Though Julia is married, and Ramon is unable to leave his bed, a complex and powerful bond evolves between them. Ramon understands Julia better than any other man. For her part, Julia knows that, despite the obstacles, Ramon is the great love of her life.

In contrast, Rosa arrives at Ramon’s house in a state of complete chaos. A single mom raising two children, who can’t hold a job for too long, she has gone through a bad history with men. Rosa hopes that by helping Ramon she’ll help herself, and Ramon quickly realizes Rosa’s desperation, and that, ultimately, she needs him more than he needs her. Ramon enjoys Rosa’s good-natured innocence and freely bestows his wisdom and friendship on her. Ramon’s kindness literally saves Rosa’s life and, with his attention, she begins to blossom. With their powerful feelings for Ramon, neither Julia nor Rosa wants to face the idea of life without him. It will be left to one of them to show the most unselfish and profound form of love.

The Sea Inside is not structured as problem film with pro and con about euthanasia. Nor does it unfold as a full-fledged conventional biopicture. Through flashbacks, the film establishes Ramon’s fatal accident under water, but the film’s lack of clear arc as a biopic contributes to its overall impact. Indeed, the fact that some viewers may know the fate of Ramon, whose wish to die was finally granted, will not detract from enjoying the film, since the focus is on the process, rather than result, of a man willing and wishing to die.

The film’s other remarkable achievement is that, unlike Vera Drake, which is relentlessly grim and depressing, Sea Inside is a joyous experience that involves the viewers in a genuine celebration of freedom and the beauty of life.

Javier Bardem was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar in 2000 for his forceful portrayal of gay Cuban artist Reinaldo Arenas in Before Night Falls. His multi-nuanced portrait of Ramon, for which he deservedly won the Venice Festival acting prize, should get him his second Best Actor nomination.

Bardem is a natural, untemperamental actor known for his subtlety and range. Witness the radical transformation he had undergone for playing a mobster in Collateral. In The Sea Inside, he benefits from Amenabar’s decision to shoot the film in chronological order thus helping the actors go step by step through their respective emotional journeys. Though assisted with heavy make-up to look older (Ramon was 20 years older than Bardem), it’s the sparseness of his acting, the lack of apparent techniques and other flashy devices that make Bardem’s performance indelible

The Sea Inside stands in sharp contrast to the more typical Hollywood fare, which has forgotten the merits of subtlety and understatement. American comedies have gotten grosser, our thrillers increasingly sadistic and gruesome, and what passes as serious dramas are moralistic tales targeted at the intelligence level of adolescents. Tough but not grim, emotional but not sentimental, verbal but not static, The Sea Inside is one of the best pictures of the year.