"The Sea Inside" aka "Mar Adentro" (Alejandro Amenábar, 2005) The issue of assisted suicide is never a cheery one, and one is hard-pressed to call this one a "fun night at the movies." Although the subject of past films,* Amenábar's approach, as it ususally is, is quite different.
The director's specialty, so far in his short career, is to deal with the plight of trapped people who can't recognize their predicament, so distracted are they by inconveniences that keep them from focussing; they can't see the forest for the trees.
"The Sea Inside" (which won the 2005 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and is based on a true story) has a similarly trapped person who's all too aware of his predicament: Ramón Sampedro (Javier Bardem) is a quadriplegic due to a diving accident in his youth. The worst thing that could have happened to him, he thinks, was to have been saved from drowning. And now, his existence is one of helplessness, aided by his family for all his needs. He may be helpless, but he is hardly inable—he is the hub of the family—everything revolves around him. Even from his limited vantage point he is well-read, articulate, gifted: he writes poetry, designs his own mobile wheelchair, and is the engine behind his lawsuit to request assisted suicide. This is his one goal, informing his life and those who are working on his cause, and the movie is involved with his cause from his point-of-view. It's not as myopic in its story-telling as, say, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"—Amenábar and his camera are far more free of navigating space and Bardem's performance is a critical part of the story. But, similar to Julian Schnabel's film, there are occasional moments of dream-fantasy where Ramón equates the ability to move with flying. He can elevate himself to the place he wants to be and carries out the conversations he craves with no limitations, not even by others' free will. Amenábar is only too aware of the irony.
Bardem is one of those blessed actors (like Jean Gabin and John Wayne and the early Spencer Tracy) who seem to exist outside age. Those three could play older at an early age and Bardem is tasked with doing that without the aid of showing stiff joints or stooped shoulders. It's all in his lived-in face, conveying a lifetime of restriction and impatience with his situation. Amenábar and Bardem keep Ramón from being an entirely sympathetic character, his frustrations erupting into petulance and tantrums that cascade down through the family. For him, the one thing he is not able to do, physically and bureaucratically, is take his own life, and despite protestations from the State and advisors and family, he is set on his goal. Dead-set.
Like Amenábar's other films (Abre los ojos and The Others), it is sometimes a frustrating slog, but it reaches a revelatory epiphany that puts everything into perspective for the protagonists, as well as the audience. Amenábar's little puzzles have lessons for everybody.
* I'm thinking of "Whose Life Is It Anyway? " and "Wit," which brings to mind that the posters for those films only featured the star's (Richard Dreyfuss and Emma Thompson, respectively) heads, as well.