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

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9 Responses

  1. This movie has been sitting on my desk for a month or so now … glad to know it’s more than worth a watch.

  2. Not to get political…but here I go. No one should be able to tell anyone when they are allowed to die.

  3. Ooooh we LOVE Javier, we’ll have to see this!

    • @ Marshall — It’s one of those movies that challenges your worldview. It might even change your life.

      @ Fitz — YES! You hit on the whole point of the film, which is that life is a right and not an obligation.

      @ Obsessed — The whole reason I watched this in the first place was Javier, and he did NOT let me down. He melts my Haagen Dazs AND he sure can act.

  4. What an excellent film, and next to his excellent turn in Before Night Falls this is probably Javier’s best.

    You should check out Amenbar’s Agora when it comes out. It’s quite good.

    • The thing I really like about Javier is the way he brings humor to characters you wouldn’t expect to have any. It’s always a nice surprise.

  5. Just put this in my Netflix queue. Pumped.

    • Great! I was very surprised at how funny this movie is — I went in expecting melodrama, lots of tears, but “Mar adentra” actually is rather life-affirming.

  6. […] “Mar adentro” (full review) — Is it possible to make a film about a quadriplegic (Javier Bardem) who wants […]

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