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Bed Head

Javier Bardem brings emotional action to immobility in 'The Sea Inside'

By Richard von Busack

IF THE MOVIE INDUSTRY is really an organized conspiracy, why would it release Beyond the Sea, The Sea Inside and The Life Aquatic in the space of one month? The Sea Inside is the one most people will find the most honorable of the three. Javier Bardem gives a warm and humane portrayal of a quadriplegic searching for a dignified death. Director Alejandro Amenábar (The Others) directed this true-life story of Ramón Sampedro, a ship's mechanic paralyzed after a dive in the ocean. For almost 30 years, Ramón—living in an upstairs room in his family's small farm—fights his relatives and the government of Spain for the right to end his life. His lawyer in the case, Julia (Belén Rueda), takes a particular interest, as she too sufferers from a potentially fatal malady. The two are drawn to each other with a connection that goes beyond the upcoming day of court. And when Ramón publishes a book of poetry titled Letters From Hell, his case becomes major news.

The Sea Inside is calculating in its effects, romanticizing its true-life roots, using opera music, particularly "Nessun Dorma" from Turnadot, to work the emotions. And if you're already in favor of assisted suicide, the time this film spends convincing you of the case's merits is time you could spend volunteering elsewhere. It's likely that my indifference to The Sea Inside comes from living so long in the vicinity of Berkeley, the most disability-friendly city in the United States, where quads and paraplegics make heroic efforts to carry on their lives, and it seems as if there isn't a BART train that isn't carrying a few of them on their rounds. Bardem's Sampedro is too proud to ride in a wheelchair—"Accepting a wheelchair is like accepting the scraps of the freedom I'd lost." Instead, he lies in bed, escaping in reveries of an ocean he can't see. He seems like a man striking a pose.

I realize this is a very harsh way of looking at the film. No one knows what their reaction would be to complete lack of mobility. All they can do is bless their freedom every day. And yet the movie also suffers in comparison with the way a paraplegic is portrayed—a paraplegic who also wants the release of death—in the new Clint Eastwood film Million Dollar Baby. Many will be dissolved by this movie into a pool of tears. The Superman's-eye shot of Ramón's dream of flying to the ocean works the emotions expertly. Lola Dueñas is excellent as Rosa—a part-time radio DJ and unemployed cannery worker, the erratic commonsensical girl who finally understands Ramón as well as anyone. Between Julia and Rosa, Ramón certainly has good luck with women. The situation is believable because of Bardem's charisma. And if the movie is old-fashioned, Bardem sells it. The actor is clearly the most important star to come out of Spain since Antonio Banderas, and like Banderas, he cuts through Spanish machismo with sensitivity and an always-present sense of humor.

The Sea Inside (PG-13; 125 min.), directed by Alejandro Amenábar, written by Mateo Gil and Amenábar, photographed by Javier Aguirresarobe and starring Javier Bardem and Belén Rueda, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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From the December 15-21, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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