`Sea' of emotion

Director Alejandro Amenabar and actor Javier Bardem craft a masterful tale of a quadriplegic fighting for the right to die.

MovieReview

February 18, 2005|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Thirty-two-year-old Alejandro Amenabar, who made the Spanish hit thriller Open Your Eyes (1997) and the international hit thriller The Others (2001), has always been a precocious and brilliant director. With The Sea Inside he becomes a great one.

The way Amenabar tells it, the story of Ramon Sampedro (Javier Bardem), a quadriplegic who fought for the right to die, illuminates and enriches a viewer's experience of life at all levels - physical, emotional, intellectual and imaginative. There were many good to excellent movies last year, but this and A Very Long Engagement are the only ones I would call masterpieces. And in a year of exceptional male performances, Bardem's is on a plateau that includes Don Cheadle and Jamie Foxx. Except for some knockout flashbacks and dream sequences, and a couple of stints in a wheelchair, he acts on his back, with no movement except in his facial muscles. Yet he projects unstoppable vitality, and, more important, an unknowable mystery.

The Sea Inside is so much more than a problem film about a paralyzed man's quest for euthanasia. It depicts, tenderly and thrillingly, the compensations and the limits of social life, family life and vicarious experience. The film starts with a woman urging Ramon to picture himself in a movie. So this sailor who fell from grace with the sea (but still loves it) imagines himself strolling on a pristine shore, luxuriating in the textures and the colors of the sky, the water, the sand, the sun, the trees and his own flesh. Then he returns to his usual position in bed, in a farmhouse a few miles from the coast.

The movie shifts like an elegant seesaw between transports of fantasy and longing and realistic scenes that are equally charged. Ramon has no physical feeling beneath his chin, yet his mental vitality communicates instantly with everyone, and specific affections pour out for each friend and family member.

Family portrait

In recent years, there hasn't been such a vibrantly detailed and loving portrait of a rural clan. With the weathered, luminous Manuela (Mabel Rivera), the sister-in-law who tends him selflessly, he shares an effortless, often mute rapport. His increasingly estranged older brother Jose (Celso Bugallo), also a sailor, became a farmer in order to care for Ramon and feels he should make the life-or-death decisions in his own house. With this stubborn, frustrated alpha male, Ramon is forceful and blunt. Ramon turns his grieving father Joaquin (Joan Dalmau) and his sometimes scampish, sometimes plain dense nephew Javi (Tamar Novas) into Mr. Fix-its: Under Ramon's specifications, they build him a writing machine that he can operate with a pointer in his mouth, and they later customize a wheelchair.

But they're also a bittersweet comedy team. Ramon urges Javi to appreciate the shambling Joaquin while he can. And individually, they're heartbreakers - Joaquin can't understand that he has a son who wants to die, and Javi understandably erupts with the irritation of someone who's too young to be a caregiver. If all that Amenabar's film and Bardem's performance did were to animate Ramon's relationships and his fleeting moments of creative bliss, it would be quite an achievement. But they never let us forget that even these valued lives and brief beatific visions pale before Ramon's transcendent urge to die.

The movie honors the banter Ramon shares with his everyday companions and the energy that goes into moving him, cleaning him, feeding him and rigging devices that, for instance, will let him answer the phone with just his mouth. But Bardem evokes the signature passion of any individual that is stronger than his or her circumstances - the molten core that defines one's identity and can't be denied. Ramon may have learned to smile when he feels pain, and he may fight his own despair. Ultimately he knows that for him, if not for other quadriplegics, death will be his sole satisfaction.

Attention to detail

Bardem acts with the timbre of his voice and the tempo of his speaking. Because of the limits of Ramon's breathing power, he must talk rapidly and precisely, using abrupt staccato rhythms for upset or displeasure. Bardem also appears to govern the amount of light in his eyes. When they turn dark with bitter rage or hopelessness, his presence becomes menacing, even though he's all laid up.

Amenabar's eye for the telling glance or posture and his ear for dialogue and music - he composed the stirring, sob-free score - keep everything in proportion. The director brings home with devastating potency the point that some urges can't be made proportionate, like Ramon's drive to die. By all rights, this movie should be as suicidal as Ramon. It's about a man who loves opera - the most movie-like experience in the high arts - yet finds it wanting. It's about a man who can't accommodate himself to the blandishments of a loving family. And despite this apparent negativity, the truthfulness and artistry of The Sea Inside make it incredibly moving.

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