Shallower Than It Looks

A handsome young man stands on the edge of a rocky cove staring down into rippling turquoise water. It looks deep, so he dives. But it is not deep. He hits bottom, breaks his neck, then spends 28 years as a quadriplegic. He also becomes famous for battling with the legal authorities in his native Spain for the right to commit assisted suicide. He loses the battle but wins the war: after publishing a book, he persuades one of his many devoted helpers to give him a glass of water spiked with cyanide.

"The Sea Inside" ("Mar adentro") is about a real man, Ramon Sampedro, whose followers are no doubt hoping that it will win this year's Oscar for Best Foreign Film. I am hoping it doesn't, because like the water into which Sampedro dove, it is exquisitely beautiful - but a lot shallower than it looks.

The acting is superb, especially Javier Bardem's portrayal of a man whose face, especially his eyes, are filled with all the seductive vitality missing from the rest of his body. Also finely drawn are the people who pass through Ramon's picturesque Galician farmhouse: his father, brother, sister-in-law, nephew, and three loving women: a "death with dignity" activist, Gene (Clara Segura); a lawyer, Julia (Belen Rueda), who is warding off her own debility from strokes; and a local factory worker and single mother, Maria (Lola Duenas), who at first urges Ramon to live but then becomes the one who helps him die.

But as lovely and beguiling as this film is, it is also tendentious. This is especially true of its caricature of a quadriplegic priest, Fr. Luis de Moya, who has said in an interview that he and Sampedro had a serious correspondence about assisted suicide before Fr. de Moya came to visit Sampedro in Galicia, and that while neither man swayed the other, they parted with mutual respect.

If this is true, or even if it isn't, why does director-writer Alejandro Amenabar feel obliged to ridicule Fr. de Moya, making him mouth petty dogma in a scene contrived to be as farcical as possible? And why accuse the Church of being inconsistent on such issues as suicide, euthanasia, abortion, and the death penalty, when in fact it is consistent?

One needn't be a Catholic or even a believer to grant that the Church's reasoning about these questions is strong and philosophically compelling. If "The Sea Inside" had the courage to take on that reasoning, then it would be worthy of its own considerable artistry. Admire the artistry if you want (I did). But be careful. Don't plunge in head first.

February 13, 2005 9:00 AM |

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This page contains a single entry by published on February 13, 2005 9:00 AM.

Observing the Formulas was the previous entry in this blog.

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