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Itís a wonderful death
Pulling the plug in Mar adentro
BY PETER KEOUGH

To judge from movies on the subject, being paralyzed is a good way to meet women. In Coming Home, Born on the Fourth of July, and My Left Foot, the guy in the wheelchair has no problem attracting the babes. Such is the case also in Mar adentro/The Sea Inside, Alejandro Amenábarís rendition of the true story of Ramón Sampedro, a Spanish sailor who broke his neck taking a high dive into the shallow end of the ocean. A quadriplegic for three decades, he has beautiful women fighting over him. And still he wants to die.

Maybe thatís part of the attraction, the allure of the lost cause, the dream of being a strong but broken manís reason to live, of creating him anew. That and the sense of control and maternal nurturing involved in loving a man immobilized from the neck down no doubt were motives for the women who loved him. There are dark elements to this story, very deep, human ones, but Amenábar chooses not to look too deeply below the surface. Instead, he has chosen to make an homage to Sampedro, and no doubt Ramónís life and his death deserve as much. For three decades, he fought the legal system for the right to die by assisted suicide. His life, he insisted, was "without dignity," and he didnít want his death to be without dignity as well. In the course of those three decades, he made many friends (many of them women) and inspired many to accept and celebrate their own lives.

He could have asked for no one better to portray him than Javier Bardem, who may be the greatest actor now in the movies. Bardemís performance by itself makes the film worth seeing. Aged 20 years by make-up into a balding, twisted hulk confined to a bed, he has only his face and voice with which to express the unfathomable emotions of a human being enduring a perverse and horrible existence. Waves of irony, pathos, and whimsy pass over his features, his eyes mirroring pain, bemusement, and sublime resignation, his constant smile Mona LisaĖlike in its ambiguity. One can imagine De Niro attempting the same transformation and find that Bardem does it better. His performance calls to mind that of Jamie Foxx in Ray; whereas Bardem is denied his body in creating his character and must rely on his eyes, Foxx is denied his eyes and must rely on his body.

Like Ray, too, Mar adentro is an affecting film with a supremely masterful performance but otherwise lacking. To his credit, Amenábar avoids most of the pitfalls of sentimentality. In addition to Ramónís tragic situation there is that of Julia (Belén Rueda), the lawyer he chose to represent him because she too suffers from a degenerative, incurable condition. Add to that Rosa (Lola Dueñas), a single mother struggling to make ends meet who, as Ramón at one point brutally points out, is drawn to him because sheís focused and needs a center for her emotional chaos and the story has all the makings of an exploitative Hollywood tearjerker ó which, given the nature of remakes, it may some day become.

Amenábar spares the world that. Both women fall in love with Ramón, but the director maintains some degree of ambiguity about the relationships. He also delves into some of the ethical issues involved. Is life an obligation or the private property of the individual? Does the legal system remain faithful to its secular nature or does it fall back on religious principles when it rules on the matter? One of the filmís more darkly comic moments is a scene in which Ramón debates the topic with a wheelchair-bound priest; itís like a more civil version of the wheelchair battle in Born on the Fourth of July.

All the same, after the brilliance of Abre los ojos/Open Your Eyes, Mar adentro is a disappointment. The fantasy sequences in which Ramón flies through the air to his beloved sea or his beloved Julia seem like outtakes from Superman. (Itís ironic that this film comes out just after the death of Christopher Reeve, who suffered the same tragedy and crusaded for life, not death.) No matter; the simple close-ups of Bardemís face are cinematic enough. Amenábar, however, chooses not to focus on Ramónís face at that Gethsemane-like moment when he asks himself why he canít accept what he has, why he wants to die. He is promptly stuffed with sedatives. The question remains unanswered and otherwise unconfronted.

Throughout the film, Sampedro insists he not be judged. So be it; no one who has not suffered the same experience should do so. In a sense, Amenábar has judged Sampedro, and favorably. But has he understood?


Issue Date: December 17 - 23, 2004
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