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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Another Word for Nothing Left To Lose
by Donald Levit

Three years ago, progressive Holland legalized euthanasia restricted to those sufficiently aware to decide for themselves, but mercy killing remains an agonizing issue in the West, nowhere more than in the United States. Filmmakers understandably shy away from so sensitive an issue, approaching it obliquely on eggshells, at best, either softened with talky gallows humor like Whose Life Is It Anyway? co-scripted by Brian Clark from his successful play, or else blurring lines with AIDS, the gay community, and a false-note “parallel frame” of Parker Posey’s baggaged Assistant District Attorney in The Event.

Based on a true case already given TV treatment as “Condenado a vivir” (“Sentenced to Live,” 2001), The Sea Inside/Mar Adentro confronts the problem squarely, generally avoids sentimentality, celebrates the spiritual strength of the individual, and brings together a fine cast to surround the Oscar-worthy performance of Javier Bardem. A democratic constitutional monarchy since 1975, officially divorcing State from Church in a nation monolithically Catholic but hardly church-going, Spain had repeatedly ruled judicially against the efforts of a longtime quadriplegic to be allowed to end his own life, as the controversy spilled into the media and public discussion.

Directing from his own script -- he also composed the music and co-produced -- Alejandro Amenábar turns to his homeland’s famous divisive case, to fashion a moving consideration of life as understood in terms of its brother death (and vice versa), of love, freedom and dignity, and of the intricacies of motivation. In Javier Aguirresarobe’s photography, little known, rainy, mountainous coastal Galicia--scene of To Begin Again and The Stoneraft -- here subtly reinforces the beauty of man’s soul. Integrally linked to this fishing and farming northwest is the sea. Ramón (Bardem) and José (Celso Bugallo) Sampedro were sailor brothers, the former an athlete and lover of women who saw the world young -- “viajar sin dinero--marinero” (to travel without money, be a sailor) -- until a beach diving accident ended the freedom of them both; the unseen water is smell and dream background for the bedridden paralytic, and young Rosa (Lola Dueñas), indispensable to the dénouement, works in a fish cannery.

“None but ourselves can free our minds,” runs the song, and, nearing twenty-eight years, fours months and some days confined in a useless body, Ramón long ago determined not to accept others’ sacrifices, including a fiancée’s hand, or scraps from life’s table. With the aid of the Death with Dignity lobby’s Gené (Clara Segura) and Marc (Francesc Garrido), he has petitioned for legal euthanasia and secured the pro bono services of lawyer Julia (Belén Rueda). The latter is lame, the stroke-caused calling card of an incurable degenerative disease she fears will leave her a vegetable. Hoping for empathy, Ramón had selected such a physically impaired counsel, but, after some initial sparring with this humorous yet cynical and demanding client, the married Julia falls for him, finds beauty in the secret poetry he has written, asks to get the writing published, and agrees to their double suicide the day the book appears in print as Letters from Hell.

Mentally toughened, the subject is physically helpless, and complications abound in those on whom he is totally dependent: José and their father, who pose moral-religious objections; sister-in-law Manuela (Mabel Rivera), who has cared for him like a mother since Mother’s death, and teenaged nephew Javi (Tamar Novas), who sorrowfully respect his wishes; paralyzed but wheelchair-mobile Jesuit Father Francisco (José María Pou), who publicly questions the family’s love and Ramon’s motives; pregnant Gené and Marc, who he decides must not be even suspected of involvement in an illegal act; and Rosa, “frustrated” single mother of two (only one by her ex-husband), an amateur deejay from Boiro who comes seeking solace and winds up in love.

Existential in insistence that freedom lies in accepting, not fearing, death, Eastern in correlating the sea inside “where dreams come true” with the source from which man comes and to which he returns, this Spanish award-winning film brings tears without depressing. There is even humor, as for instance Ramón and Fr. Francisco’s upstairs-downstairs shouted debate; there is reinforcement in the landscape and simple farmhouse/pazo; there are the integrated, underplayed fading photographs from a carefree past; there is pathos, more in Julia finally than in Ramón. And then there is Bardem . . . 

(Released by Fine Line Features and rated "PG-13" for intense depiction of mature thematic material.)

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