In the sea inside all of us, Judge Adam Arseneau is a dinghy.
Life is a right, not an obligation.
Based on a true story, The Sea Inside is a introspective journey into the world of a man trapped in a bed, a quadriplegic who desires nothing more than the control of his body if only to end his own existence. But don't let the subject matter fool you. Put simply, The Sea Inside is marvelous in every single category that a film should be marvelous in, and then some.
Directed with a magnificent hand, shot expertly with beautiful cinematography, a wonderfully moving script, incredible acting, and a rock-solid DVD presentation…oh, my. After typing that last sentence, I fancy a change of underwear; that's how good we're talking here.
Facts of the Case
Winner of fourteen Goya Awards and both a Golden Globe and an Oscar for Best Foreign Film of 2004, The Sea Inside is the dramatized tale of Ramón Sampedro, a Galician fisherman and sailor who broke his neck diving into shallow water on the coast of Spain at the age of 26. Paralyzed from the neck down, Ramón fought for the right to end his own life over the next three decades in a series of legal battles with the Spanish government, expressing his desires in a book of poetry that drew the world's attention to his desire to die with dignity.
Despite the grim subject matter, The Sea Inside is not a film about death; at least, not in the way you may think. It is a life-affirming experience, a film of love and joy, intermingled with sadness and regret. The legal story is a subplot, nothing more than a contextual backdrop; the film is more a moving testament to the brilliance and glory of life and love in all forms, not a political statement or expression of liberal ideology bogged down in the debate of euthanasia. Rather, The Sea Inside is simply the tale of a sad, unfortunate man, a man so passionately in love with life that he attempts to exert control exactly over how he lives it—not to make a statement, or to change the world, or to tell anyone else how to live their lives, but only to exact change in his own.
Words seem irrelevant when discussing a film as poignant, introspective, and moving as The Sea Inside, a film nothing short of a Spanish juggernaut of cinematic achievement. Though the film is based on real events, this is a fictionalized telling of the last years of Ramón Sampedro's life, with artistic liberty taken to places, people, and events, though the salient facts remain in his fight for his right to end his life with dignity through legal battles and challenges to the highest courts in the land. Unable to perform even the simplest task, Ramón desires nothing but the control over his own body to end his existence, yet manages to always keep a smile on his face. Sadly, he admits he learns how to cry by smiling, at first simply for those around him, but eventually to hide himself away from his own unconquerable sadness. He is a man trapped in an ever-repeating moment of stasis, a man frozen at the peak of his life, a prisoner in a bed overlooking forests and mountains that he will never be able to walk through again.
His unquenchable desire for oblivion stems not from cynicism or hatred, but rather, from an overpowering love of life, of the simple splendors denied to him for 30 years, like walking barefoot on a beach, wandering through a forest, or to simply touch the skin of a woman. To Ramón, a life denied of these pleasures is no life at all. You do not have to agree with his ethos, but neither does the film ask you to; it only asks you to accept his decision as a personal one, made of sound mind and broken body. Ramón's paralysis was a stroke of misfortune, and in his secret moments, he wishes the impact had killed him. His life of suspended animation was not one he requested or chose, and firmly believes that life is a right, not an obligation. The only thing that has kept him alive is the cruel twist of fate that keeps his hands dangling uselessly at his side; for had he control of his body, even slightly, he would use it to end his existence. Out of desperation, he constructs an elaborate set of schemes and deceptions, recruiting friends, advocates, anyone he can find to assist him in his suicide. He has no desire to have the law turn on his loved ones, and his overly complex plan exploits legal technicalities in order to place the blame for his actions squarely on the person who deserves it—himself.
On the subject of love, two women appear in Ramón's life, challenging his resolve and his desires: Julia, an attorney hired by Ramón's "right to die" campaign friends in order to assist in his legal battle, and Rosa, a local townswoman who sees Ramón on the television and becomes enraptured by him. Julia has health issues of her own, and she soon finds herself identifying with Ramón in ways she never imagined possible, while Rosa sees something in Ramón worth saving, desperately trying to convince him to stay alive. Both love him deeply and profoundly, and even though he desires both, he insists he is not capable of loving them. This is not based on his physical limitations, but rather, spiritual ones. Ramón is so steadfast in his resolve to end his own life that he entertains no illusions about being able to love anyone else in return, raising complicated questions about the nature of love and affection. Can one really and truly love another in return when one has such little love for his own life?
Careful to keep the film on as neutral political ground as possible, the film insists throughout that this is the story of one single man; his views on death, life, and quadriplegia are not meant to be taken as statements or decelerations for others. They are simply the feelings of one man, of one individual. I reiterate this point because it is absolutely critical to appreciate the film for what it is…an affirmation of life, not a political statement. Now, obviously, total avoidance of the issue is utterly impossible, and The Sea Inside acknowledges this in the form of a quadriplegic priest, slowly making the journey to Ramón's house to debate the finer points of life with him from the bottom of a staircase (as he is unable to ascend the winding steps) in one of the film's most clever cinematic sequences. Their back-and-forth debate represents the other side of the fence not examined by Ramón's introspection, and the position is handled with clarity, rationality, and genuine feeling. "I am not sure which of you is right," says his family after the priest departs, and indeed, The Sea Inside is not, either. It simply tells the tale of one man who made his feelings very publicly known on the intentions and desires of his own life, such as it was.
The Sea Inside features one of the strongest ensemble performances I have ever witnessed in a motion picture; there is no weak link in this film in terms of acting. Everyone brings career-making performances to the table here, but it obviously needs not be mentioned that the star of the film is Javier Bardem, who gives a literal tour-de-force bringing Sanpedro to life. Altogether warm, caring, charming, and sly, his portrayal captures the heartbreaking sadness of a forced and empty life with disturbing ease. Without him, the film simply could not be; his performance is that riveting, that compelling. I now understand the Oscar nomination in 2004 for Best Makeup for The Sea Inside. Before seeing the film, I scoffed at the nomination in comparison to the lavish and special effect-laden films also nominated, but now having seen the film, I understand the nod perfectly. With a few cunning camera tricks and makeup, he literally becomes a paralyzed man, both of body and of heart. The illusion is utterly convincing and a spectacle to behold.
I keep finding myself comparing The Sea Inside to Amelie, even though the films have absolutely nothing in common beyond an inspiring feeling of…bliss? Exuberance? Sheer pleasure? Perhaps they feel similar because both films are utterly life affirming, and leave the viewer improved, taking away something ineffable, something valuable from the cinematic experience. While Amelie achieves this through whimsical sweetness, The Sea Inside takes a more somber and mature route to the same goal. Imagine, if you will, comparing the perennial wisdom of a grandfather to the innocence of a child. Despite being diametrically opposed, both can enrich your life, warm your heart, and send your soul singing.
I also realize, with some amusement, that both films are incredibly difficult to articulate to somebody who has not seen them. Trying to explain how wonderful The Sea Inside is to someone who has not experienced it is challenging. Imagine new parents talking in circles about their baby throwing up, and what a moving experience it was. Anybody not a parent would just be irritated, or grossed out, or possibly both.
The transfer, simply put, is spectacular, one of the best I have ever seen on DVD. Black levels are deep and rich, colors are balanced and vibrant without oversaturation, a lustrous sea of blues, greens, and grays. Like a painting come to life, The Sea Inside is a magnificently directed piece of cinematic art, each shot a perfect composition. There is nary a speck of dirt nor a scrape to be seen and the transfer is sharp, sleek, and incredibly well-detailed. Even on close magnification, the image stays together with amazing clarity. The worst one can say about this transfer is a slight tendency to exhibit shimmering during complicated sequences, and tiny touches of grain now and again, but this is hardly a complaint.
Audio fares nearly as well, with a Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track and a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track, both in the original Spanish. The 2.0 track is functional enough, but cannot compare to the dynamic of the surround mix, which is wonderfully open, clean, and low-end responsive. The rear channels spring to life during outdoor sequences, but for the most part remain relatively inactive; the film relies primarily on the center channels for dialogue and score, all balanced nicely. This is definitely a top-notch audio presentation, more than a match for the impressive visuals.
New Line did a good job trotting out the extra materials for this one. First, a full-length director's commentary track with Alejandro Amenábar (The Others, Open Your Eyes) recorded in Spanish, with helpful optional subtitles in English. The director is forthright and open throughout, tackling all aspects of production and development of the film. Second, an 84-minute documentary entitled "A Trip To The Sea Inside" covers all the salient details of casting, script, inspiration, cast and crew interviews, etc., with even more detail. Even for standard "making of" documentaries, this is heads and shoulders above the competition. Admittedly, there is some redundancy between the documentary and the commentary track (the director himself even observes this) but not enough to negate one over the other. In addition, we get deleted scenes, storyboards, photo galleries, set design galleries, and the theatrical trailer. Considering the film's relative obscurity, this is a marvelous offering of extra materials. New Line hit it out of the park on this one. For a single DVD presentation, The Sea Inside is simply stellar.
Well, almost. One special feature I had not encountered finding was this DVD's built-in ability to send my computer into spasms whenever I tried to insert The Sea Inside into my DVD-ROM drive. Not only did the computer refuse to acknowledge the disc, it would set its mind so resolute on refusal to play that it figured the best way to stop me inserting the disc was to systematically crash my computer every time I tried to hit "play." Really, the only thing that stops me from penalizing the disc, from a scoring point of view, is the sheer irony of it.
I mean…a DVD about a paralyzed man paralyzing my computer? That is simply too poetic to punish. But I have a twisted sense of humor. What can I say?
The Rebuttal Witnesses
After watching The Sea Inside for the first time, my initial euphoric impression was how I could not conceive of a person who could find this film lacking in any way, shape or form. So it was with some measure of surprise when I actually found myself hearing and reading reviews that were less than flattering. Perhaps the subject matter of the film hit too close to home? Or that were troubled by the perceived (erroneously, if you ask me) generalizations of handicap in the modern era? I guess one could get these elements out of the film if one really came into the film carrying a lot of baggage. I recall reading Roger Ebert's review and how he subjected the film to his own personal views on life and quadriplegia, which seemed to influence his final verdict. Admittedly, this is something that I myself am doing right now, but nobody is perfect.
Though I practically insist on the film's universal appeal and overall awesomeness, I suppose that The Sea Inside touches on more than simply the right to die; it asks the viewer what it means to truly be alive, which is a very personal, very introspective question, inadvertently bound to sour more than a few people's perspective of the film. If the subject matter does not appeal to you, I strongly urge you to suspend your criticism and give this film a chance like I did. I myself found the idea of the film, upon first explanation, quite uninteresting and unappealing. Boy, how wrong I was.
It is ironic that a movie about a man's right to die can be, in of itself, a life-enriching and affirming cinematic experience. Not many movies can actually make a profound impact on the modern day-to-day life, but The Sea Inside comes awfully close. In telling the story of Ramón Sampedro's life, the film inspires the viewer to examine all the reasons we have to be alive, to embrace life and our existence to the fullest. And for a movie, that's pretty powerful stuff.
A near-perfect cinematic experience with a DVD presentation to match. Well, except for the computer-crashing thing.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
• Commentary with Director Alejandro Amenábar
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