May 16, 2022

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Sea Inside, The (Mar Adentro)
(Reviewed December 17, 2004)
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"Life is a privilege, not an obligation." That seems to have been the slogan of Ramůn Sampedro a Galician fisherman who became a quadriplegic in a diving accident and, 26 years later, decided that he wanted to kill himself. But it begs the question. How does he know itís not an obligation? What he means is that he doesnít want it to be an obligation and therefore chooses to believe that it is not. Presumably all suicides make that choice ó a choice that is tantamount to a denial of the existence of God, since a genuine believer could hardly be that and at the same time so rude to God as to refuse what he must regard as His gift. Of course, youíve got to sympathize with anyone to whom life has in some way become a significant burden, as it did with Sampedro, and to understand how suicide could accordingly become a temptation. But it is a very large step to take from that ordinary human sympathy to making a serious argument in favor of what is nowadays called "the right to die."

To be fair to Alejandro AmenŠbar, the author of weird and atmospheric pieces like Abre los ojos (1997) and The Others (2001), his moving and well-directed film version of Sampedroís life and death called The Sea Inside (Mar Adentro) doesnít flinch from the philosophical or theological implications of its heroís choice. Moreover, in casting Javier Bardem in the role of Ramůn, AmenŠbar, has scored as much of a propaganda coup as Julian Schnabel did in Before Night Falls. Bardem makes Ramůn a real charmer, and the frustrated longings of a man who can move nothing below his neck are palpable. In a macabre sort of flirtation, he seduces two different women, Julia (Belťn Rueda) a tragically fragile intellectual, and Rosa (Lola DueŮas), an earthy factory girl with hidden depths, in the only way he can by persuading them to provide him with the necessary assistance for his long-planned suicide. The almost Wagnerian association between love and death ó early in our acquaintance with Ramůn we find him listening to the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde ó is carried further when Juliaís own deteriorating health prevents her from fulfilling their suicide pact. It is as if her husband, in persuading her to live, has sucessfully prevented her infidelity with either of his two rivals, Ramůn and death.

Also brilliantly done is AmenŠbarís portrayal of Ramůnís devoted and loving family ó his taciturn brother Josť (Celso Bugallo), a farmer, and Josťís wife, Manuela (Mabel Rivera), who does everything for him, their teenage son, Ramůnís nephew Javi (Tamar Novas), and Ramůnís and Josťís somewhat non compos father JoaquŪn (Joan Dalmau). The family politics of being and bearing a burden are introduced with Javiís comment on gramps, who is said to be "totally senile" and who "sits at home all day. Who needs him?"

Ramůn tells his remarkably insensitive nephew: "Maybe some day you will be so sorry for what you just said that you will hate yourself," but of course it is really he who hates himself for the absence from his life of what he calls "dignity" ó that without which life no longer seems worth living. At least grandpa doesnít know how useless he is. Josť refuses to countenance Ramůnís suicide. "Iím your older brother: as long as Iím around no one kills anyone in this house." His stern refusal takes on the hardness of morality in contrast with the paradoxical softness of Manuelaís uncritical love when she says: "Ramůn wants to die; thatís enough for me."

It will be clear that immensely complex moral issues are being raised here, but the film doesnít really come to grips with them apart from their human impact, which it always adumbrates with enormous skill and sensitivity. Ramůn is allowed much too easy a triumph over a quadriplegic priest, Father Francisco (Josť MarŪa Pou), who rather cleverly tries to argue him out of his plan to kill himself by saying that his belief that his life is his own, to do with just as he pleases, is really an extension of the bourgeois desire for possession. Ramon, obviously a leftie, is meant to be given pause but instead he merely brushes the idea aside because it comes from a spokesman for the Catholic church, which every communist knows has always been capitalís lackey. So thatís it for that argument then.

AmenŠbar is allowing politics, and in particular the anti-clerical politics of post-Franco Spain to do the moral heavy lifting for him here, and the fact points up the unfortunate extent to which the filmís moral seriousness is compromised by its purposes as propaganda. The hard edge of Ramůnís atheism is softened as he discusses the afterlife with the still believing but confused Rosa. He says he doesnít know but he just has a hunch that there will be nothing more of him after he sips his fatal cocktail: "Like when Dad says he thinks it will rain tomorrow." Perhaps it is just out of deference to Rosaís feelings that he fails to mention to her what must occur to many other traditional believers: that heís betting his immortal soul on this "hunch." Still, there are just occasionally moments when AmenŠbar allows his film to suggest that it may not be quite so easy as the propaganda suggests ó as when poor old JoaquŪn, in the only moment of lucidity that takes him beyond his weather predictions, says that "thereís only one thing worse than your kid dying on you: him wanting to." Maybe, after all, life is just a bit of an obligation.

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