The Sea Inside/Mar adentro is based on the true story of Ramon Sampedro, a quadriplegic who struggled with the Spanish legal system for almost 30 years for the right to die, or the right to be put to death. The film is exquisitely directed by Alejandro Amenabar (The Others, writer for Vanilla Sky.)
The film opens with Ramon (Javier Bardem) being cared for in the house of his brother (Celso Bugallo) by his sister-in-law Manuela (Mabel Rivera). His father lives with them as well. Ramon has a strong and positive influence on the entire family. Three visitors come: Gene (Clara Segura) who is with the organization that supports the right to choose life or death, Julia (Belen Rueda), a lawyer with a degenerative disease, who will take Ramon’s case to court, and Rosa (Lola Duenas), a disc jockey and single mother of two who sees Ramon on television and comes to him for her own needs. There is a fourth visitor, Padre Francisco (Jose Maria Pou), also a quadriplegic, who first insults the family for not loving Ramon enough and then tries to convince Ramon from a philosophical point of view that life is worth living. (How I regretted the approach this priest took in the film; did it happen in real life? I would hope that clergy and all pastoral workers will take note of how not to minister to the sick, even if you share their disease.) How these guests and the family interact with Ramon and the journey they take with him, is the story of the film.
Ramon takes journeys inside his head – back to the accident that made him a quadriplegic, back to the many countries he visited as a young sailor, and just to the freedom of the landscape and the sea beyond his window. The film is located in La Coruna in the Galicia province in Spain. I had the priviledge of visiting there for a week in 1995 for a media education conference at the University of La Coruna. I only had Saturday afternoon of that week to walk around the city (when I could still walk long distances and before I knew I had MS). La Coruna is a very old and marvelous city. Unfortunately I started my trek about 1:00pm when everything was closing for four hours – siesta time! All the many churches were closed, too, except the chapel of the Poor Clare nuns. I prayed there for awhile. The architecture of La Coruna is singular: the buildings along the waterfront and sea shore are all made of windows that look like thin alabaster in the sun. If you know this, then the film is even more moving.
The Sea Inside has already won many awards, including the Grand Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival (2004) and is being nominated for others. In terms of story-telling, this film is at the top of its class. Bardem, who won great acclaim as the Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas in Julian Schnable’s 2000 film Before Night Falls, only keeps adding to his impressive filmography as one of today’s finest actors.
The Sea Inside builds a case for mercy-killing. Ramon speaks of love – that if someone loves him, then they will help him die when the courts delay and refuse his plea. But isn’t love about willing the good of “the other”? There are some very strong moments in the film where Ramon and his brother and Rosa argue about euthanasia. All I could think of is: what is the nature of love? Ramon expected others to fulfill their love for him by helping him die, but he seemed to have missed out on what his death would mean to those who loved him – the loss. He seemed selfish to me. They cared for him unconditionally, yet he put conditions on his love. They had to help him die, and when they will not, he turns to those who will.
Ramon has a sense of humor and a twinkle in his eye. Someone asks him as his sister-in-law turns him in bed: how can you smile so much? He responds: “When your life depends so much on others, you learn to cry with a smile.” Ramon had so much to give.
Julia helps Ramon publish his poems. The publication date becomes a deadline – literally. Julia, who has a neurological condition that makes her keep having strokes (I missed the name of it in the film), reinforces Ramon’s dilemma in the sense that her condition becomes so serious she cannot make the final determination about her life; Ramon still can and he will.
If you are a person with a chronic disease, like MS, you can understand Ramon and Julia, even if you cannot agree with their nihilistic rationale. The film touched me deeply. For MS patients, you never know what the next day will bring, if you will wake up blind or unable to walk. But you just keep going, one foot in front of the other, because life is good in itself – and the alternative is unacceptable. I understood the film because I could identify with many aspects of what the characters were living with. Yet I reject Ramon and Julia’s conclusion that we are the master’s of our own final destiny, that death is preferable to life. This is the paradox of Catholic teaching about life: we say it is a holy thing to be martyred for the love of Christ, that we live well to die and to be with God in eternity. Yet, it is not up to us to choose how or the means, or to carry out this death that awaits us all; we are never to make a direct attack on the life of another, or even assist in it, as happens in the film. Suicide is not an option on the smorgasbord of ways to end one’s life, as is presented in The Sea Inside.
If Ramon ever had faith, he lost it. He no longer believed in life after death. If you believe in everything, then ultimately you believe in nothing; if you believe in nothing, then anything is permissible. The story of Ramon Sampedro is the face of nihilism in today’s world. The Sea Inside is a brilliant, heart-wrenching film that sheds light on nothingness.