The Sea Inside (Mar Adentro)

euthanasia:the act or practice of ending the life of an individual

suffering from a terminal illness or an incurable condition

Euthanasia has become one of the push-button issues of an age which has seen extraordinary advances in the medical profession’s ability to keep ill or injured people alive, even as raging worldwide culture wars divide the deeply religious (likely to oppose euthanasia) from the secular (likely to believe in life and death with dignity and personal choice). In the United States, assisted dying is legal only in the state of Oregon, although it is practiced widely, if covertly, elsewhere. The people of Oregon voted democratically to legalize euthanasia under carefully defined circumstances, but the Bush theocracy is, nonetheless, doing all it can to thwart the will of the people of that state.

The conflict around euthanasia is hardly exclusive to the U.S., as evidenced by a sensitive and deeply felt new film from Spain, The Sea Inside. The film is based on the true story of Ramon Sampedro (Javier Bardem) who was injured in a diving accident at age 25, leaving him permanently a quadriplegic, totally dependent on others for the most basic functions of day-to-day life. Despite the loving care of his family, Sampedro believed that no dignity remained in his life and he wished to die. For thirty years he campaigned for the right to end his life.

Write-director Alejandro Amenabar (The Others, Open Your Eyes) might easily have gone astray with this material — it has all the potential for the didactic, the polemical, and the maudlin. But Amenabar, barely into his 30′s, has created a warm and dramatically satisfying film that doesn’t hide its bias, but also allows for varying viewpoints to be expressed. So, on the one hand, Sampedro is given a number of opportunities to express his feelings as he interacts with other characters; so, too, on the other hand, does his older brother, Jose (Celso Bugallo), get to angrily express his opposition, as does a Jesuit priest, himself a quadriplegic. In a scene of powerful confrontation, Sampedro’s sister-in-law, Manuela (Mabel Rivera in a deeply moving performance), calls the priest to account for insensitive and thoughtless public remarks. And Sampedro’s father quietly makes the despairing observation that the only thing worse than losing a child is to have the child want to die.

A montage of photographs shows Sampedro’s life before the accident, when he traveled the world as a ship’s mechanic and, apparently, found love in every port. The contrast of his youthful adventures with the limitations of his life as a paraplegic speaks for itself. While most of the film takes place in Sampedro’s bedroom, Amenabar opens it up with some aerial footage of the rugged landscape of Galicia, the location of the Sampedro family farm. Classical music selections and original scoring adds further emotional impact to the drama.

There are three women who befriend Sampedro: Gene (Clara Segura), who leads a political group working for a euthanasia law; Julia (Belen Rueda), a lawyer, herself suffering from a degenerative disease, who works with Sampedro to develop his case; and Rosa (Lola Duenas), a local factory worker and single mother who seeks Sampedro out as much out of her own need as out of her sympathy for his plight. Each of these relationships is different from the others and each of the women is fully characterized by the script and by finely etched performances.

Bardem (Collateral, Before Night Falls) transforms himself from the rugged thirty-something matinee idol that he is into a balding, fifty-five year old, bedridden man who somehow sustains a sense of humor and the ability to care for others and have an impact on their lives, even as, with focused conviction, he pursues his wish to die. The ultimate test of love will be the choice to enable his wish.

Arthur Lazere

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San Francisco, CA
Mr. Lazere founded culturevulture.net in 1998 and worked tirelessly to promote its potential as a means for communicating a distinctly personal yet wide-ranging selection of arts reviews. Under his leadership, the site grew in esteem as well as in “circulation", and is well-regarded nationally and internationally as a source for up-to-date, well-written criticism. Arthur passed away on September 30, 2006.