If your mind is made up about euthanasia, you'll find The Sea Inside either galling or grand, depending which side you're on. Inspired by the real-life story of Ramón Sampedro, this film wants to appeal to our emotions, sweeping us up in an affection for its charismatic central character in hopes of making us side with him in his campaign to end his life in an assisted suicide.

But there's the problem. If you already disagree with the film's inescapable viewpoint, its one-sided polemic will mostly just aggravate you. If you haven't made up your mind, you may find it hard to feel what you're supposed to because your head keeps getting in the way—it'll get into your head more when it wants to win your heart. And if you happen to agree with its premise, you'll applaud its conclusion.

Unfortunately, The Sea Inside so resolved to make its point that it's unwilling to lend any credibility to any other side of the argument. If you're on the fence, you might find yourself constantly assessing (and ultimately reacting against) the film's arguments.

Ramon (Javier Bardem) and Julia (Belen Rudea) develop a mutual attraction

Ramon (Javier Bardem) and Julia (Belen Rudea) develop a mutual attraction

Still, The Sea Inside is admirable in many ways. Simply regarded as a film, it's memorable, closely observing the many details of life and human relationship that truly are worth noticing and celebrating. It's propaganda, sure, but it's not mere propaganda. There's real artistry here, and humanity. If only it weren't so issue-centered; we don't experience the film so much as we assess its arguments, and object to the high-handedness with which opposing viewpoints are dismissed.

The Sea Inside tells the story of a quadriplegic man who has been confined to his bed for three decades, following a diving accident. As unapologetically honest as he is about the reality of his situation, and as little patience as he has with ignorant strangers and their demands and presumptions, he's an intelligent and fundamentally pleasant man. We want to spend time with him. In spite of his condition, he's resolutely cheerful. And yet because of his condition, he wants to die.

Confined to his room, Sampedro (Javier Bardem) has no choice but to closely observe the physical realities of his immediate surroundings and the people in his life, eliciting a poet's appreciation for these everyday glories that is in constant tension with thwarted desire: He can see, smell, hear and imagine, but he cannot touch. He cannot engage, cannot enter in.

The film's great accomplishment is that it mostly confines itself to the man's immediate surroundings, forcing us to observe, to notice. In a sense the film makes us more alive by quickening our senses, bringing a deeper appreciation of a loving face, an act of kindness, the view from a window. Some of Sampedro's greatest pleasures are aural, and when he asks a friend to play a particular classical music selection, the camera takes great delight in observing the particularities of a vinyl record removed from its sleeve, placed on a turntable, the tone arm descending and the music coming. This quotidian delight is echoed when Rosa, a young single mother whose care-taking instincts have been rebuffed, dedicates a record to Ramon during her amateur radio show.

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Beneath the ethical questions is a love story between Ramon and Julia

Beneath the ethical questions is a love story between Ramon and Julia

The Sea Inside isn't fundamentally preoccupied with story: it's about life experienced, and the agony of everyday sensual pleasures denied. What forward momentum there is builds around his efforts to gain legal permission or practical means to end his own life, and—even more—the progression of his relationships with two women; the smitten Rosa (played with verve and sparkle by Lola Dueñas) and the alluring lawyer Julia (the stunning and mature beauty Belén Rueda), with whom Ramon discovers an immediate and agonizing mutual attraction.

Apart from its emotional manipulation and rhetorical dishonesty, the film's main strategy—and by far its most successful, and aesthetically pleasing one—is its way of drawing us into empathy with the central character by forcing us to regard the same quotidian wonders Sampedro must look upon day after day. It shows us the glory of common things, the sensual delight of a swim in the ocean, an embrace or a bicycle ride, a growing sensitivity that serves only to emphasize Ramon'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 a great deal of respect. As in the matter of abortion, those who call themselves as "pro choice" have little patience with those who claim the label "pro life," and in this highly politicized movie, any character with qualms about "mercy killing" is likely to be both Catholic and unlikable. His brother is grieved at the thought of Ramon's suicide, but his concerns are reduced to narrow and inflexibly dogmatic religious platitudes that are somehow portrayed as inherently selfish.

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The alluring lawyer Julia, played by Belen Rueda

The alluring lawyer Julia, played by Belen Rueda

A Catholic priest who is himself quadriplegic visits Ramon to persuade him of the inherent value of his life—but the priest is portrayed as self-righteous and pushy, an opinionated 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 there is something smug in the construction of the upstairs-downstairs debate which follows. Frankly, Sampedro's arguments are flawed, his rhetoric glib and unconvincing. The film cheats: Our Hero is declared the winner, but we don't see him actually score any intellectual points. Essentially, Sampedro 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, Ramon's salt-of-the-earth sister-in-law ends the argument by telling 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.

Sampedro himself is clearly 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 his "eternal lover, the sea": in an evocation ofJob 1:21, he says of the sea: "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-centered religion, dwelling on "the sea inside" rather than the one which exists outside and transcends him.

One might think The Sea Inside must be depressing, considering its subject matter. Not so: Javier Bardem creates a witty and immensely likeable character. Resisting the temptation to play the pathos of the situation, he chooses instead to greet most situations with warmth and intelligent amusement, coping with his agonizing circumstances with a winsome humor. When a friend is surprised at his request for a cigarette, he remarks that he likes to smoke every once in a while, in case it kills him. Sampedro may not suffer fools (i.e. Christians) with patience, but neither does he give way to bitterness. Still, he is no Pollyanna: with poignant insight, he remarks, "When you depend on others for everything, you learn to cry with a smile."

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Lola Duenas plays the smitten Rosa

Lola Duenas plays the smitten Rosa

Still, though I was unable to feel much of the emotion the filmmakers tried to impose on me—I recoiled at the shamelessly manipulative music and dialogue that hails Ramon as conquering hero during his drive to the legislative hearings—I often felt (or imagined) the physical sensations I was meant to experience, and in the final analysis that is probably the more significant accomplishment, in a film so concerned with physical sensation and its absence. The overly melodramatic bids for my emotional (and therefore intellectual) sympathy may have failed, but the far more important campaign to engage my empathy (and therefore compassion) through imagination and the senses succeeded brilliantly.

The film is worth seeing, but only if you're prepared to set aside your aversion to its polemic in order to experience its compassion. You don't have to agree with Ramon Sampedro to admire him, and—ironically enough—to leave the theatre with a deepened appreciation for life.

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. The film notes that many Christians are opposed to euthanasia and abortion because of their reverence for life, yet they also support capital punishment and war. Do you consider these beliefs to be inconsistent? Why or why not?

  2. Is it possible that a life of paralysis could be God's will for someone? How does that stack up against our belief in a God of goodness?

  3. If you were a quadriplegic, what do you think your attitude would be? Do you think you'd at least entertain the thought of death, just so you could escape your condition and gain a new, complete body in heaven? Is it wrong to have those thoughts? Why or why not?

  4. At one point a Catholic priest says, "Since we live within eternity, our life doesn't belong to us." The film dismisses his viewpoint, instead saying, "Life is a right, not an obligation." How do you understand those two viewpoints? What biblical perspectives shed light on this question?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

while there is no nudity or explicit sexual activity, the film is highly sensual, and there are fantasy scenes and talk about physical intimacy between the central character and a married woman. Young or highly sensitive viewers may also be troubled by the frank consideration of assisted suicide, and its portrayal (however restrained its depiction).

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What Other Critics Are Saying
compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 01/13/05

Million Dollar Babyisn't the only film to receive a harsh judgment from religious press critics this week. The new film from Alejandro Amenabar, is earning high praise for its artistry, but harsh criticism for a conclusion that condones a "mercy killing."

The Sea Inside portrays the real-life story of Ramón Sampedro, who, after a tragic diving accident at age 18 left him paralyzed from the neck down, fought a 30-year battle against the legal system for the right to end his own life.

"Simply regarded as a film, it's memorable, closely observing the many details of life and human relationship that truly are worth noticing and celebrating," says Ron Reed (Christianity Today Movies). He notes that the film does work as propaganda in favor of euthanasia: "Unfortunately, The Sea Inside is so resolved to make its point that it's unwilling to lend any credibility to any other side of the argument." But he adds, "It's not mere propaganda. There's real artistry here, and humanity. The film is worth seeing, but only if you're prepared to set aside your aversion to its polemic in order to experience its compassion. You don't have to agree with Ramon Sampedro to admire him, and—ironically enough—to leave the theatre with a deepened appreciation for life."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) calls Bardem's work "perhaps the standout performance of the year. While wrestling with the thorny issue of euthanasia, director Alejandro Amenabar manages to navigate the film's moral minefield with a fair degree of objectivity resulting in a picture that—though unavoidably controversial—is nevertheless thought-provoking, compelling and hauntingly beautiful. Soberly and sensitively crafted, The Sea Inside is, without a doubt, emotionally moving, yet never overly gloomy or heavy-handed in its sentimentality."

He concludes, "From a Catholic standpoint, what is objectionable is not that Amenabar has chosen to make a film dealing with assisted suicide, but that in doing so he seems to suggest … that self-autonomy is the highest good and 'ultimate freedom,' insisting that 'the right to choose must prevail over all other considerations,' a view distilled to the shibboleth 'life is a right, not an obligation' repeated throughout the picture."

Mainstream critics are not so put-off by the narrative, and they're heralding Bardem's performance as Oscar-worthy.

The Sea Inside
Our Rating
3 Stars - Good
Average Rating
(not rated yet)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG-13 (for intense depiction of mature thematic material)
Directed By
Alejandro Amenábar
Run Time
2 hours 6 minutes
Javier Bardem, Belén Rueda, Lola Dueñas
Theatre Release
March 04, 2005 by Fine Line Features
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