The subjects of euthanasia and the “right to die” have taken a back seat to sexier controversies in recent years, but it wasn’t very long ago that Dr. Kevorkian was on the news every night and Ramon Sampedro was petitioning the Spanish government for the right to end his own life as he saw fit.
“The Sea Inside,” which tells of Sampedro’s struggle, is probably the most uplifting, life-affirming film about suicide ever made. It makes you grateful to be alive even as you sympathize with Ramon’s struggle. He’s such a wonderful, honest man that you really hope he dies at the end.
Directed and co-written by Alejandro Amenabar (“The Others”), “The Sea Inside” stars Javier Bardem as Ramon, who at the film’s beginning has been paralyzed from the neck down for 26 years. He became quadriplegic in a diving accident and has since been cared for primarily by his sister-in-law Manuela (Mabel Rivera). He lives in an upstairs room in the home of Manuela and her husband, Ramon’s brother Jose (Celsa Bugallo), and does not often leave it. He despises the wheelchair. He has a poet’s soul and is deeply sensitive, yet he has allowed himself to become bitter over his situation. He has no dignity in the current arrangement, no zest for life. He wants to die.
The Spanish government doesn’t allow assisted suicides, however, and Ramon obviously can’t do it himself. Through the help of a group called Death with Dignity, he campaigns for Spain to recognize the legitimacy of euthanasia and to grant him his wish. Meanwhile, he goes on living, writing a book and polarizing his friends and family.
His lawyer, Julia (Belen Rueda), whom he chose specifically because she has a degenerative disorder that makes her sympathetic to those who want to die, connects with him in a way no one else ever has. Rosa (Lola DueÃ±as), a lower-class factory worker who saw Ramon on the news one night, befriends him and tries to dissuade him from his goal, coming to rely on his strength in the process. His aged father refuses to discuss the matter. His brother and sister-in-law, also good Catholics, are torn between hating to see him suffer and knowing they would miss him if he were gone.
Javier Bardem is the soul of the movie, portraying Ramon as a tender, intelligent man full of wit and warmth and passion. It is precisely the role that someone like Robin Williams or Jim Carrey would play — the sad clown who teaches everyone Valuable Lessons About Life — except that Bardem does it without becoming too preachy or maudlin.
The film does have a tendency to set up situations so that characters are forced to give heavy speeches (as opposed to engaging in normal conversation) about life or death or whatever; but these speeches are always delivered well by Bardem and the supporting actors, all of whom perform superbly. In fact, the speeches are delivered so well, you almost forget they’re speeches.
Amenabar’s direction is graceful throughout, but never more so than in one beautiful scene in which Ramon imagines he is flying out the window, soaring over the Spanish countryside, and landing on a beach where Julia is waiting to kiss him, all accompanied by Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma.” A scene that magical and lovely is rare, and yet it is right at home in this lovely, poignant film.
A- (2 hrs., 5 min.; Spanish with subtitles; )