If a filmmaker intends to make an extremely emotional film about death – and especially 'assisted suicide' – he or she had better have a central character who is not, at least on the surface, terribly emotional. In this respect, the poet Ramón Sampedro is a perfect real-life character for director Alejandro Amenábar and star Javier Bardem.
A quadriplegic for almost thirty years, Ramón sought tirelessly for the Spanish courts to recognise his right to end his own life. While everyone around him – friends, family members, and those fighting his cause – constantly dissolves in tears, anger and occasionally moments of transcendent joy, Ramón remains dry, laconic, tenacious and sometimes hypercritical. He is always the first person to joke about his disability.
Ramón's outpouring is more internal: in his poetry, which he keeps private and incomplete for many years, and especially in his meditative reveries of flying through the window and into the air (the Spanish title, Mar adentro, more literally means 'out to the sea', as it is subtitled in the closing scene). Amenábar, a superb craftsman and storyteller, balances these glimpses of the inner, imaginative life of Ramón with the swirl of characters around him.
In researching Ramón's life, Amenábar and his gifted script collaborator Mateo Gil (director of the excellent Nobody Knows Anybody ) were fortunate to unearth the mini-melodrama involving two women who were effectively rivals for Ramón's love: Julia (Belén Rueda), a savvy lawyer who herself suffers from a crippling, degenerative disease; and Rosa (Lola Dueñas), an unsophisticated but deeply loyal single mother attracted by the media coverage of the case. The film illuminatingly probes the different values of these women in the same compassionate, rounded way it views all those close to Ramón.
Arriving in some countries in the wake of the controversy that surrounded Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby (2004), The Sea Inside was fated to be taken as another contribution to the social debate about euthanasia. Amenábar does not skirt this issue, but he also firmly and cannily places it. As in Eastwood's film, The Sea Inside implies no general comment about disability rendering life 'not worth living'. Indeed, Ramón constantly asserts that his wish to "die with dignity" is a strictly individual decision. And his hilarious verbal tussle with a disabled priest, Francisco (José María Pou), who tries to persuade him otherwise, clarifies his position once and for all.
In some respects, Amenábar in fact gives us a rose-coloured view of Ramón's physical condition. There is only the tiniest allusion to pain, let alone the daily, arduous rituals related to eating, washing, toiletries, and so on. Indeed, Ramón seems to be a supernaturally cheery guy most of the time. This renders his determination to die as a somewhat abstract, almost purely philosophical proposition – as though he were on the same level as the main character of the Australian documentary Mademoiselle and the Doctor (2003), an elderly woman who chose to die while she was still relatively healthy.
Along this line, it is instructive to learn what Spanish cinephiles think of their Oscar-winning export-auteur. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Amenábar is the object of intense critique and suspicion in his homeland. In a remarkable text titled "Against that Spanish Cinema" – a polemic against the majority of mainstream production in Spain – Carlos Losilla makes an argument against Amenábar that tallies with the kind of cases that French cinephiles make against Jean-Pierre Jeunet (or that cinephiles in most countries make against any comparable 'official' figure): there are no real, flesh-and-blood people in Amenábar's films, only figments (Open Your Eyes, 1998), ghosts (The Others, 2001), or easy-to-manage types or abstractions (like Ramón).
Is this an instance of that well-known phenomenon of the Cinephile Blind Spot in relation to national cinema and its international success-stories? From this distance, it is hard to entirely sympathise with, or even quite comprehend, the Spanish cinephiles' objection to Amenábar (or, on another plane, Bigas Luna). There may be (but only may be!) qualities in a filmmaker best appreciated outside of his or her national context.
I certainly believe this is the case with Amenábar. Even when he is obviously being evasive or manipulative, Amenábar is always firmly in control of the tale he wants to tell, and how he wants to tell it. And it is hard not to be moved by The Sea Inside and its portrait of a remarkable man.
© Adrian Martin April 2005