The story of Ramon Sampedro is Spanish legend. Recent Spanish legend. Or rather, a Spanish three-ring media circus. In early 1998, at age 55, Sampedro, who had been a quadriplegic since his early 20s, got his wish: He died.
In fact, he died before a video camera, and the footage created a sensation. But even more of an attention grabber was the way he died: At least 10 people assisted Sampedro. The plan had floated around his head for years, and it went off without a glitch. Each participant played a small role in helping him without knowing enough to be found guilty of his murder.
The Sea Inside - winner of the Academy Award in February for best foreign-language film - tells a loosely fictionalized account of Sampedro's story; it also opens locally with almost eerie timing. In December, when it began playing in a handful of art houses, its relevance was to stem cell research: If Sampedro had lived long enough to read about the stem cell debate, a few critics noted, he might have thought twice. Then in January and February, The Sea Inside was included in the debate over whether or not Million Dollar Baby and Clint Eastwood advocated assisted suicide.
Its best time, though, is now.
Whatever failings Alejandro Amenabar's movie has - and I think they're considerable - The Sea Inside still offers a more nuanced debate on the meaning of assisted suicide than you'll find from the average television news report about Terri Schiavo. Which is to say, director Amenabar and actor Javier Bardem (who plays Sampedro) don't offer a didactic argument for assisted suicide (though their sympathies are clearly in support), only a man who decided it was the proper choice for him.
"I consider life to be a right," Sampedro says, "and not an obligation."
The movie is noble. Not everyone in his situation should want to die, it's saying. What Amenabar takes for granted, though, is its ability to move us - or engage us in the debate on an intellectual level. Sampedro lived in the same room for a quarter century, unable to move below the neck. He watches TV. He writes poetry using a pen in his mouth. Bardem acts entirely with his head, and gives Ramon a beatific, gentle humbleness; it's a reminder that any actor's true gift comes through his eyes.
Typical disease-of-the-week elements are in place, and the acting promises to transcend the typical, but the discourse - his brother opposes the suicide, his lawyer supports it (then becomes paralyzed herself) - succumbs to sentiment and a visual hamminess. And I think we've had enough of that.
Contact Christopher Borrelli at: firstname.lastname@example.org