The Sea Inside

A drama about euthanasia without prejudice

" I have wrestled with death. It is the most unexciting contest you can imagine. It takes place in an impalpable grayness, with nothing underfoot, with nothing around, without spectators, without clamor, without glory, without the great desire of victory, without the great fear of defeat, in a sickly atmosphere of tepid skepticism, without much belief in your own right, and still less in that of your adversary. If such is the form of ultimate wisdom, then life is a greater riddle than some of us think it to be."
Marlow in Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness"

It's difficult to make lyrical the subject of death in any work of art. Yet movies have recently made bold attempts to humanize it to the extent that it is embraced as a part of the cycle of all living things, and it can be chosen rather than legislated. "Chosen" is the operative word for Alejandro Amenabar's Sea Inside, based loosely on the true story of the Galician sailor Ramon Sampedro. It is a drama about euthanasia without prejudice clothed in love, poetry, and friendship. If it sounds like Barbarian Invasions (2003), in which a cancerous professor says farewell to lifelong friends and loves before he takes his life, then you are right. In fact, Sea is better because it spends more intimate time with the protagonist before he goes, a remarkable feat with not one of those moments in the least dull or uninteresting.

Javier Bardem as Ramon has expressive eyes and commanding voice for the romantic quadriplegic, a combination of tough realist and poetic sufferer. Belen Rueda plays the disabled lawyer Julia, who becomes an imaginary lover for Ramon, increasing in radiance as her life degenerates with disease. Added to the already almost soap opera circumstance is Lola Duenas as Rosa, a blue collar visitor who initially tries to dissuade Ramon from seeking death but quickly falls in love with him. Talk about romanticizing disability--This guy has unbelievable luck attracting substantial women, and he can't move a finger. But talk he can, proving the ultimate argument about what women want: love that speaks, not just makes.

I will refrain from mentioning the major motion picture now up for an Oscar that features euthanasia as its climax in order not to spoil the experience for first timers. Sufficient it is just to say both films are successful in opening up both sides of a contentious subject without forcing a specific point of view. The religious right has a right to complain that Barbarian Invasions celebrates suicide; it has no right to accuse the beautifully balanced Sea Inside of the same.

"A life in this condition has no dignity," Ramon says. The irony is he conducts himself with supreme dignity that makes anyone question his determination to end his life. "The Sea Inside" is a formidable entry in 2004's Oscar nominations for best foreign language film.