U.S. Release Date: December 17, 2004
Distributor: Fine Line
Director: Alejandro Amenabar
Writer: Alejandro Amenabar
Cast: Javier Bardem
Running Time: 2 hours and 5 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (intense depiction of mature thematic material)

The Wonderful Life Aquatic
by Scott Holleran

With lyricism and motion, and with life as the point of reference, Alejandro Amenabar's subtitled Spanish movie about a man fighting for the right to die, The Sea Inside, stimulates the senses and the mind. Opening with the sound of deep breathing, which becomes the swish of waves coming ashore, Amenabar's follow-up to The Others is subtle and powerful.

Barely recognizable Javier Bardem (Before Night Falls) is Ramon Sampedro, a paraplegic who was Spain's first person to demand the right to die, and he gives an affectionate, moving performance. But, laden with themes that unfold through intensely vivid portrayals, this is not solely Bardem's domain.

From the beginning, Ramon (Bardem), a sailor whose full life was cut short by a diving accident, is a dominant presence. He resides at a farm run by his family, which includes his father, his brother, his sister-in-law and their son. It is a toiling existence, with Ramon—the most lively person on the farm—imprisoned in stifling solitary confinement while waging an endless battle versus the Spanish state, which denies his right to choose life or death.

Amenabar dramatizes what constitutes life from Ramon's perception, in whispering narrative, soaring Puccini and a breathtaking fantasy that stirs the senses—and comes crashing back to the reality of Ramon's dilemma: retaining his self-esteem while being forced to depend on others. The others upon whom his life depends include sensual Julia, a lawyer who meets Ramon's criteria that whomever argues his case in court be afflicted with a degenerative disease. Married Julia is troubled by her own sickness.

Aided by Ramon's caretaker, sister-in-law Manuela, Julia discovers Ramon's life before injury, by rummaging through old photographs and poems, and the ingeniously arranged snapshots permeate the movie. She forms a romantic bond with Ramon.

Strictly speaking, The Sea Inside is not a love story—it is a life story, told in stylized realism. Paralyzed Ramon flirts with every woman within ten feet—he smiles, he charms, he winks—but always like a benign ghost reminding the haunted that he'd rather not be there. Among those who aim to change his mind are working-class Rosa, a wreck of a single mother who is drawn to him, and a crippled priest who tries to bully Ramon into accepting pain as a cross to bear. In one of the funniest scenes, Ramon debates him.

The priest cannot make it up the stairs to confront bedridden Ramon face-to-face with his diatribe, so he finally calls up the stairwell in exasperation: "Freedom without life is not freedom!" to which outraged Ramon erupts: "Life without freedom is not life!" The exchange, depicted with humor, ends abruptly with an outcry that is the movie's credo: "Leave Me Alone!"

That phrase returns in an entirely different context through another character, and it underscores Amenabar's skill as a storyteller. Ramon—and his estimate of life—is the constant referent. Each character—whether an aid or an obstacle—is self-contained, yet Amenabar, with co-writer Mateo Gil, presents each characterization as a means to Ramon's end. Ramon watches, he listens, he trades—like a doomed sailor in his final port of call—with life as a celebration of the values he exchanges.

Belen Rueda
Julia (Belen Rueda) is Ramon's soul mate, a gentler version of Jeanne Moreau, who transforms smoking a cigarette into an act of elation. Earthy Rosa (Lola Duenas) is charming, then annoying, then pitiful and finally angelic. Handsome young nephew Javi (Tamar Novas), plopping on Ramon's bed to watch a soccer match, is impetuous; Ramon's tender sister-in-law Manuela (Mabel Rivera) personifies goodwill, and Ramon's miserable brother Jose (Celso Bugallo) isn't half the man healthy Ramon is handicapped—and he knows it. Navigating these choppy waters is Gene (Clara Segura), a fiery idealist who is Ramon's lady comrade in the struggle for freedom. Happy, healthy, and rational, Gene is a genuine heroine.

References to feelings and hunches blur the picture, and The Sea Inside is missing an explicit philosophy. Amenabar's reliance on narration leaves a very loose end with an unread letter that begs to be revealed. But characters are defined by actions, not just words, and Amenabar—lingering on a face, a gesture or a sunset—creates a rhythmic and potent affirmation of what it means to be alive.

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DVD Notes
Leaving no stone unturned, the single-disc DVD edition for writer and director Alejandro Amenabar's The Sea Inside is all encompassing from start to finish. The 85-minute documentary, A Trip to The Sea Inside, is practically a private tutorial from the young director, who takes the viewer to Furnas Beach with true behind the scenes narration and video—not overproduced publicity puff with no purpose—in a step-by-step guide to making the movie.

Among the highlights: footage of the real Ramon Sampedro, which authenticates several important scenes in the movie, Amenabar at work on his Macintosh with writer Mateo Gil, script readings with Javier Bardem and every aspect from conceptualization, controversy over the Catholic priest scene, and music, with Amenabar, who can't read a note, singing to a group of musicians—and then seeing and hearing the finished scene.

The documentary is technically exhaustive and illuminating about the process, though everything on this disc is best understood in Spanish and subtitles move fast. Sound, lighting, casting—it's all here, which makes A Trip to The Sea Inside almost worth watching before the movie. Other features include an outstanding audio commentary by razor-sharp Amenabar, who addresses what's happening on screen, and—besides the trailer and deleted scenes—storyboard, set and photo gallery stills.

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