POTENTIAL SPOILER WARNING: In order to fully discuss my thoughts on The Sea Inside, I reference events in Million Dollar Baby that may spoil the narrative of that film for those who have not seen it. Read on at your discretion.
Strange how subtitles can seemingly defuse what would otherwise be a politically explosive film – writer/director Alejandro Amenabar's excellent (and Oscar-winning) drama, The Sea Inside, traffics in concepts akin to another film that pushed buttons in red and blue states alike – Clint Eastwood's likewise accolade-garnering Million Dollar Baby.
But whereas Million Dollar Baby tackles a similar subject with drastically different effect, Amenabar's uplifting and moving portrait of Ramon Sampedro, a Spainard who took his own life after spending nearly 30 years as a quadriplegic feels far more human and earned than the jack-in-the-box surprise of Eastwood's narrative – and you certainly don't see any seething editorials about Sampedro.
Now that I've (possibly) thoroughly ruined the twist in Million Dollar Baby for those who haven't seen it, back to the matter at hand – Javier Bardem gives one of the most astonishing performances of last year as the paralyzed Ramon; acting only above the shoulders for much of the film, Bardem essays the role of a proud, defiant individual who chooses to live and die on his own terms. It's a brilliant piece of acting and one that, in any other year, would surely receive some much-earned awards recognition.
Spinning out his days on a farm in Galicia, Sampedro and his extended family grind out the hours – completely dependent upon his relatives, Sampedro continuously fights for the courts of Spain to grant him the right to engage in euthanasia and end his suffering. With "right to die" lawyers working his case, a young writer, Julia (Belen Rueda) comes to Ramon, offering to write a book about the poet and artist – with unexpected results.
The film chronicles a span of years in Ramon's life, culminating in a heartbreaking decision that irrevocably changes the lives of all that he knows forever. The beauty of Amenabar's deliberately paced and exquisitely shot (by Amenabar vet Javier Aguirresarobe) tale is that the viewer comes to know and love Ramon slowly, allowing the climax of the film to have a far more significant emotional impact.
Amenabar, who aside from co-writing the screenplay, scored, edited and co-produced the film, brings his keen eye to bear on this moving true-life story; a two-hour film about euthanasia has all the potential of being a slit-your-wrists downer but perhaps ironically, The Sea Inside is one of the more life-affirming films you're likely to see any time soon.
The assembled cast is uniformly excellent, but the film belongs to Bardem, whose turn as Ramon is, again, flawlessly acted. You'll be shocked to see the menacing drug lord from Collateral helpless and paralyzed; it's a stunning transformation that further cements Bardem's reputation as an actor without peer. I cannot recommend The Sea Inside highly enough; engaging, thought provoking and ultimately a deeply human journey, this is a tremendous film about a tremendous man. Seek it out.
New Line presents The Sea Inside in a gorgeous 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that deals in lush oceanic vistas and strikingly composed images of day-to-day life on Sampedro's family's farm - there's little wrong with this image (aside from occasional grain) that detracts from its enjoyment. It's a solid representation of Aguirresarobe's sterling camera work and Amenabar's eye for composition.
Offered in its native Spanish with either Dolby Digital 5.1 or Dolby 2.0 stereo, The Sea Inside doesn't have a lot of flashy "surround" moments but rather gives warm, full life to this drama driven by dialogue. Amenabar's score fills out the surrounds appropriately, but largely, the audio end of things takes a back seat to the lush, evocative visuals.
A generous helping of bonus material is included here - Amenabar contributes a commentary track (in Spanish, with English subtitles) which he begins by doubting whether or not he should even do one. He mentions the documentary included on the DVD probably hits most of what he wants to discuss, but that doesn't stop him from speaking the entire two hours and five minutes of the film - he covers everything from behind-the-scenes technical details to the motivations for telling Sampedro's story. A great track. The 84-minute full-screen documentary "A Trip To 'The Sea Inside'" (in Spanish, with English subtitles and captions) is exhaustive in its detail and features interviews with cast and crew and three galleries - storyboards, set design and photo - are included. Also on board are three deleted scenes, running an aggregate of six minutes, 20 seconds and presented in non-anamorphic widescreen with English subtitles. The Sea Inside's anamorphic widescreen theatrical trailer is here as are trailers for Vera Drake and A Very Long Engagement.
The Sea Inside boasts a masterful performance from one of the great actors working in film today, along with a DVD full of great bonus features. Those skittish of subtitles need not worry as Amenabar's stunningly visual storytelling propels this life-affirming drama to great heights. Highly recommended.