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No. 35: “Mar adentro” (2004)

“A life without freedom is not a life.”
~~Ramón Sampedro

There is an impulse, very human and universal, to tend to wounds as we discover them: to salve the burns, clean and stitch the gashes, soothe the scrapes. This impulse extends to our reaction to people who want nothing more than to die; we must coax them away from the edge and convince them of them of life’s welcoming beauty. “There is so much to live for,” we insist, feeling a sense of urgency frightening because it makes us wonder if there’s conviction or just convention behind it.

This is the rocky terrain that director/screenwriter Alejandro Amenábar carefully but adeptly navigates in “Mar adentro,”* winner of the 2004 Oscar for Best Foreign Film. His haunting, difficult film centers on the true story of Galicia-born Ramón Sampedro (Javier Bardem, displaying astonishing warmth and humor), a quadriplegic who spent nearly three decades arguing for his right to assisted suicide. Paralyzed by a botched cliff dive at age 25, Ramón did not accept his condition as people wanted. Instead, he spent his remaining years of his life sure of just one thing: he wanted to end it. Ramón’s yearning for death flew in the face of everyone’s unspoken expectations — that he accept his reality bravely, that he press on because that’s what people do. He did not react accordingly; Ramón challenged people to consider, really consider, the cruelty of forcing him to keep living when all he wanted was to die.

Without the right director and lead actor, a man like Ramón Sampedro might not translate to the screen, or seem too much like a martyr than an actual human being. Amenábar, in his beautifully lensed and poignantly written film, sidesteps these dangers by honing in on Ramón’s very personal story and his relationships with his family and friends. And that’s where Bardem’s talent comes in: The actor creates a perceptive, funny, deeply felt character using only his eyes and his facial expressions and his voice. Though it’s the extraordinary, Oscar-nominated make-up artistry that ages him, it’s Bardem who makes Ramón so much more than a tragic figure. He plays Ramón years after the accident that rendered his limbs useless, now living in Galicia with his brother José (Celso Bugallo), José’s wife Manuela (Mabel Rivera), who serves as Ramón’s caregiver, and their father Joaquín (Joan Dalmau). Ramón believes himself a burden to Manuela and his family, though he tries to conceal that with humor. Sometimes he lets the truth slip out. “When you can’t escape, and you constantly rely on everyone else, you learn to cry by smiling, you know?” he explains. He also upbraids a priest (Josep Maria Pou) armed with a Bible and a cache of trite platitudes.

In lobbying for his right to euthanasia, Ramón locates a pro-freedom of choice organization to back his case and meets with a supportive lawyer, Julia (Belén Rueda, controlled but powerful), who is facing her own uncertain future of disability and dependency on caregivers. Ramón also touches the life of Rosa (the more emotive Lola Dueñas), a damaged woman who sees a kindness in Ramón she wants to save. Ramón’s relationship with these women is the soul of “Mar adentro,” and while there are elements of romance Amenábar keeps the film from straying into a melodrama overstuffed with grand proclamations about the redemptive powers of love and the value of life. He doesn’t force this angle; rather, Amenábar structures “Mar adentro” as a heartrending tale of Ramón’s struggle and the ways he changes Julia and Rosa’s lives. Each comes to love him, and each comes to understand that she cannot will him to live. All he asks is that both women accept him as he is; only one has the strength to do so.

Bardem intuits this about Ramón, his longing for a love great enough to set him free, and communicates churning oceans of meaning with his eyes and his expressions. This a performance of depth and feeling that defies explanation; it is magnetic and challenging and commanding. If we cannot agree with Ramón’s choice, Bardem ensures we see and understand his reasons. He makes us feel the despair of a life lived on everyone else’s terms.

*”Out to sea,” not “The Sea Inside,” the misleading English title

No. 34: “Blazing Saddles” (1974)

“Gentlemen, please, rest your sphincters.” ~~Hedley Lamarr

I do believe, in all the wide, wide world of sports, that I have No. 6’d my way into a corner here.

Lookit: “Blazing Saddles,” as mentioned in the 10 movie facts post, played an incremental role — however demented — in my development from sullen teen to maturity-resistant adult. I have seen it upwards of 100 times. My parents and I have all but created our own language based around quotes from the film. It isn’t close to my heart; it’s in my heart. And it is much easier to review films when there is no emotional attachment involved. How do you turn fresh eyes on a film like that? I’m not sure. I can be a provincial putz that way.

So for “Blazing Saddles” we’re going to change the way we do business here at M. Carter @ the Movies. I’m going to do something a little bit different, something that suits the episodic nature of the film and something that speaks to the deep appreciation I have for comedy that not only stands the test of time but bests it. (Those unfamiliar with the film, scroll to the end for a brief plot summary.) Seeing as “Blazing Saddles” is a collection of golden comedy nuggets, allow me to lead an exploration of the 34 scenes/quotes/gags that qualify Mel Brooks’ film as one of the funniest ever made, and a staggering work of mad genius.

Excuse me while I whip this out:

34. “Mongo only pawn in game of life.”

33. The saddles are designed by Gucci. 

32. Hedley Lamarr’s (Harvey Korman) loss of Froggy in the tub, and Taggart’s (Slim Pickens) accidental game of find-Mr.-Winkie.

31. Hedley’s list of the baddies he needs to take over Rock Ridge (it includes Methodists).

30. Idiot Gov. William J. Le Petomane (Brooks) can’t get a simple harumph outta that guy.

29. “Well, it all depends on how much Vitamin E I can get my hands on.”

28. Lili Von Schtupp’s (Madeline Kahn) idea of what constitutes slipping into “something a little more comfortable.”

27. Guy dressed as Hitler: “They lose me right after the bunker scene.”

26. The French Mistake.

25. Dom DeLuise demonstrating the French Mistake.

24. Gov. Le Petomane can’t fit his pen in the inkwell (“think of your secretary”).

23. The revelation that stampeding cattle through the Vatican is villainous … and kinky.

22. “I will read from Matthew, Mark, Luke and DUCK.”

21. Mongo (Alex Karras) is not gay.

20. Lili’s entire performance at the saloon, but particularly the line “they start with Byron and Shelley / then jump on your belly / and bust your balloon.”

19. “Teutonic Titwillow” would be a killer name for a band.

18. But “Teutonic twat” would be even better.

17. Rev. Johnson’s heartfelt prayer to God using the phrase “dicking around.”

16. “Land: see Snatch.”

15. Murdered sheriffs and burned crops are acceptable, but did the cattle deserve that kind of treatment?

14. Harriet Johnson’s (Carol Arthur) voice can put the fear of the Lord Almighty in ya.

13. “We’ve gotta protect our phony-baloney jobs, gentlemen!”

12. That a quote from Nietzsche is followed by “blow it out your ass.”

11. Wed woses are so womantic.

10. Chewing gum on line is a capital offense.

9. “Goddarnit, Mr. Lamarr, you use your tongue prettier than a 20-dollar whore.”

8. Sheriff Bart’s (Cleavon Little) bait to lure two KKK thugs behind a rock.

7. The story of how The Waco Kid (Gene Wilder) became a drunk (“little bastard shot me in the ass”).

6. The campfire bean chowdown/fart-a-thon.

5. Everything Gabby Johnson (Jack Starrett) mumbles.

4. None of Hedley’s henchmen see the idiocy of having a tollbooth in the middle of the desert (“somebody’s gotta go back and get a shitload of dimes”).

3. The way the whole film reveals the racism inherent in Westerns (Brooks would hate that kind of lit-theory babble, though).

2. Sheriff Bart’s “introduction” to the Town of Rock Ridge: the hold-up.

1. Taggart detailing the intricacies of what it means to “work up a no. 6” on anyone. (If anyone invites you to a No. 6 dance, turn him down.)

*Synopsis: Corrupt politician Hedley Lamarr, in an effort to wrest land from the Town of Rock Ridge, convinces the governor to appoint a black sheriff, Bart, to the all-white town, and infuriate the residents. Bart finds an ally in the washed-up, drunk Waco Kid, and they fend off Hedley and his sidekick, Taggart’s, increasing efforts to snatch their town from under them.