Among the obvious list of things that make moviegoers feel good – bunnies, puppies, and children with slight lisps all spring to mind – euthanasia typically would not make the cut. But that is indeed the sleight of hand of Spanish filmmaker Amenábar’s The Sea Inside
. The film, nominated for an Oscar for best foreign film, chronicles the real-life 30-year battle of a paraplegic named Ramón Sampedro to end his life. Sampedro is played by the incomparable Bardem (Before Night Falls)
, a hulking actor who has brought tremendous physicality to his previous roles. That physicality is concentrated here, and it’s extraordinary to watch an actor fully embody a role in which the canvas for conveying emotion is confined to the neck up. Bardem plays Sampedro somewhat impishly – he’s a flirt with the ladies (indeed, he juggles two romantic interests), a faux gruff mentor to his young nephew, and the charismatic leader of a one-man crusade. There are very few cracks in the jovial facade; actually, one wishes there were a greater willingness on the part of the filmmakers to burrow into those cracks. Sampedro sparked a national debate in Spain about the right to die, a fight all the more heated considering his country’s complicated relationship with Catholicism. That tension inspires one of the film’s best – and funniest – setpieces, in which a paraplegic priest (and bit of a media whore) journeys to Ramón’s house in order to convince Ramón that life is indeed worth living. The house is not set up for a wheelchair ramp, and Ramón, peeved with the intrusion, refuses to be carried down to the first floor to engage in a moral debate. The priest, hellbent on saving a soul, won’t be deterred; he sends one of his young acolytes upstairs to serve as his mouthpiece. The young priest is soon jogging breathlessly up and down the stairs between the two to deliver one opposing argument after another, until the two paraplegics finally shuck all decorum and resort to shouting from one floor to the next. It works because it’s funny, but also because Amenábar and co-writer Mateo Gil (who also collaborated with Amenábar on Open Your Eyes
) sincerely explore in this scene the gray areas of the right-to-die argument. Understandably, a filmmaker tackling the retelling of a national hero must do so with great delicacy, but The Sea Inside
presents not so much a hero as a saint in Sampedro. Encouraged by Amenábar’s score (incongruously Celtic-twinged but effectively fulsome), I did indeed feel good, feel stirred, by The Sea Inside
, but in the way we do when the enemy is vanquished, the lawyer wins the big case, the doctor saves the patient. I felt good, in broad strokes, about the human condition, yet, looking back on it now, that feels somewhat like a failure. On Amenábar’s part or mine, I’m not sure.