TO THIS DAY, I can't listen to Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings without getting teary at the memory of the final scene in "The Elephant Man" in which John Merrick (John Hurt), over Barber's crushingly sad composition, ends his own life, merely by rearranging the pillows that support his hideously deformed head.
I knew that I was supposed to feel the same way by the time I got to the end of "The Sea Inside," Alejandro Amenabar's tear-duct-milking drama based on the real-life struggle of Spanish quadriplegic Ramon Sampedro (Javier Bardem) to legally end his own life. Nevertheless, I remained strangely dry-eyed up to the final shot, a bird's-eye view of the ocean stretching as far as the eye can see, which acts as a metaphor for life, or death, or both. Despite such striking cinematography, despite impeccable acting on Bardem's part (if only from the neck up), and despite a score by the director himself designed expressly to nudge viewers in the direction of catharsis, I never really felt anything.
Ramon (Javier Bardem, with Belen Rueda), a quadriplegic, wants to die in "The Sea Inside."
(Teresa Isasi -- Fine Line)
That's because, unlike David Lynch's 1980 acclaimed film, we never really get to know the protagonist. Although Amenabar inserts a couple of flashbacks to when Ramon was a strapping young man, standing on the rocks of the beach where a diving accident paralyzed him almost three decades ago, we are never shown who he is -- or was. As suggested by the title, the inner Ramon remains as vast and unknowable as the ocean within each of us.
This, I want to believe, is part of the film's point: That since one can never really know what life feels like for another human being, how dare we legislate that someone not be allowed to shuffle off this mortal coil when life ceases to hold any pleasure or meaning for that person? Frankly, it's an argument, in this bald-faced advertisement for assisted suicide, that works better intellectually than emotionally. Okay, okay, I buy it. Ramon deserves the right to die. It's his decision, not mine.
That's my head talking, though, and not my gut.
Here we see Ramon, waited on hand and foot by a household of loving relatives, and with not just one but two beautiful women slowly falling in love with him. The first is Julia (Belen Rueda), the lawyer working on his legal petition to allow his suicide. The second, Rosa (Lola Dueñas), is a local single mother who saw Ramon on television and who has determined to change his mind about wanting to die. That's not a bad state of affairs, even for an able-bodied man.
I know it's superficial, not to mention presumptuous of me, to imagine that just because he has breakfast in bed and a couple of hot babes kissing on him, he should be happy. How can I know what it's like to be crippled, impotent, helpless?
That's the problem. I can't. And despite its best efforts, "The Sea Inside" never even tries to show me, relying instead on the cliches of sentimental moviemaking to get me where it wants me to go. Is Ramon in pain, other than the humiliation of being unable to perform sexually? I just don't know.
During the film's one scene of comic relief, where a wheelchair-bound priest (Jose Maria Pou) visits Ramon to convince him that life is worth living, the two end up shouting their arguments at each other from one floor to the next, since the Padre can't get up the stairs and Ramon can't come down. We're clearly meant to laugh at this long-distance butting of heads -- and we do -- but at the same time, I kept coming to the conclusion that what Amenabar's hero really needs is not someone to hand him the potassium cyanide cocktail, but a stiff dose of therapy.
THE SEA INSIDE (PG-13, 125 minutes) -- Contains obscenity and disturbing thematic material. In Spanish with subtitles. At Landmark's E Street Cinema and Bethesda Row.