Friday, January 07, 2005


THE SEA INSIDE (MAR ADENTRO, 2004, Spain/France/Italy, Alejandro Amenabar, wr Amenabar & Mateo Gil)
When you depend on others for everything, you learn to cry with a smile.

If you've got your mind made up about euthanasia, you'll find this film either galling or grand, depending which side you come down on. But if you don't already agree with the film's viewpoint, it's one-sided polemic will mostly just aggravate you. The film is so resolved to make its point, so unwilling to lend credibility to any other side of the argument, I found myself constantly assessing (and ultimately reacting against) the film's arguments – even though I don't have a position on the issue at hand. It got me into my head when it wanted to be in my heart: it made me stubborn when it wanted to win me over.

Simply regarded as a film, though, THE SEA INSIDE is memorable: it's propaganda, sure, but not mere propaganda. There's genuine artistry here, and humanity. It relates the true story of Ramon Sampedro, a quadriplegic man who's been confined to his bed for three decades, following a diving accident. In spite of his condition, he is resolutely cheerful: because of his condition, he wants to die.

THE SEA INSIDE shows us the glory of common things, the sensual delight of a swim in the ocean, an embrace or a bicycle ride, serving ultimately to emphasize Sampedro's unbearable circumstances, where most of these glorious and common pleasures are out of reach if not out of sight. Following from this, we are expected to support his conclusion – that death is a reasonable exit from this unbearable tension.

As you might expect from a film with a euthanasia axe to grind, religious characters are not treated with respect. As in the matter of abortion, the folks who position themselves as "pro choice" have little patience or respect with those who claim the label "pro life" (unfortunately the opposite is just as often true, but that's not the focus of this particular tract— er, movie), and in this highly politicized story any character with qualms about Sampedro's "mercy killing" is likely to be both Catholic and unlikeable.

A quadriplegic Catholic priest visits, to persuade Sampedro of the value of his life. The priest is portrayed from first to last as a self-righteous and pushy man, a dominating, opinonated and ill-informed fool with a weak and brittle argument. The movie works hard to get laughs out of his inability to get up the stairs to Sampedro's room in his wheel-chair: the gag is condescending and mean-spirited, and smug in its treatment of the conversation that follows. Frankly, Sampedro's arguments are flawed, his rhetoric glib and unconvincing. He is proclaimed the victor not because he makes better arguments, but on the grounds that he's not a jerk like those Catholics. In case we miss the point, his salt-of-the-earth sister-in-law ends the argument by saying to the priest: "I don't know which one of you is right, but I do know one thing: you have a big mouth." The film lacks her humility: it's perfectly sure that it's right, and proclaims that to us at every possible opportunity.

Best thing about the film? The visceral power of two of its most potent visual sequences. When we flash thirty years back to the ocean dive which led to his life-long paralysis, the leap is rendered with a point-of-view camera shot that gives the dive a sudden and visceral exhilaration followed by a sudden and terrible impact that we almost feel in our bodies, then a prolonged hovering silence as he floats face down in the water. This moment is echoed later in the film in the film's most memorable and effective sequence. The camera scans along the man's arm and stops at his hand, which we regard for some time, unsettled by its complete immobility. Then, just as we become uncomfortable with the motionless image, we are startled to see the hand move, ever so subtly. Slowly, painstakingly, the hand moves the covers aside, rises from his bed, sizes up the bedroom window, turns away from it to walk down the hallway. He stops, turns back toward the window, then runs headlong and flings himself out. Once again the camera has shifted to his perspective, and the all-too-familiar sense of plummeting downward is transformed at the last instant from an apparent suicide attempt – a dream? a nightmarish re-imagining of his terrible and fateful ocean dive? – into a thrilling fantasy of flight: just before the dreaded jarring impact we pull up and soar triumphant across the fields and vineyards, through valleys and over ridges to the sea where that terrible accident occurred. In the context of a film which confines itself fairly rigorously to the mundane and tangible realities of day-to-day life in a single room, such fantasy sequences – always introduced with a wonderfully sly subtlety – extraordinary. We feel these sequences almost physically in our bodies, a potent evocation of all that Sampedro was doomed not to experience in his.

In matters of religion, Sampedro is no theist, disdaining the metaphysical foundations of the legal argument against his intended suicide. In matters of eternity and the human soul, he is at most an agnostic: "After we die, there's nothing, just like before we were born.... It's just a hunch." If there is a hint of transcendence in his life, it is to be found in the image of the his "eternal lover, the sea": in an evocation of Job 1:21, he says of the sea that "It gave me life, and it took it away." And truly, if the sea is his capricious god, perhaps it can be said that his is ultimately a self-centred religion, dwelling on "the sea inside" rather than the larger one outside, which transcends him.


Available at Videomatica

Originally published at Christianity Today Movies