Traveling in Dublin a few years ago, I found, to my shock, that the hip, young, urban locals drank Budweiser as if it was a premium import, much as Guinness is treated here stateside. This tiny oddity dogged me walking into Alejandro Almenabar’s The Sea Inside. Do we, as an American audience, too easily give a critical pass to foreign film? Is there a subconscious given that tells us anything imported to the art-house is “better,” or, at least, more sophisticated then our own cinema? Would a film, like The Sea Inside, be as critically praised if it were produced here, in English?
The film deals with death and suicide, difficult topics that, along with sex and money, rarely find their way into polite conversation. Based on a true story, Ramon Sampedro (Javier Bardem) is a quadriplegic who, bed-ridden for 28 years, is seeking his own right to die; giving him a dignity he cannot find in a wheelchair. Is his life a right or an obligation? Ramon petitions for his right despite the varied contrarian or salvation efforts of everyone around him: the Spanish government and Catholic Church who vehemently oppose him; the family he lives with and who take care of him (and sometimes vice-versa); Rosa (Lola Duenas), an unhappy single mother who seeks his council and who falls in love with him; and Julia (Belen Rueda) a lawyer with whom he develops a firm bond that grows to mutual love. It is a testament to the quality of the film and its performances that two women falling in love with a quadriplegic raises nary a hair on the eyebrow.
Almenabar, who also wrote the score, tackles this difficult subject matter deftly, infusing an unforced humor found, for example, in the scenes Ramon shares with his nephew Javi (Tamar Novas), and Rosa's two young kids. He also uses several cinematic tools effectively throughout: close-ups to draw the audience closer to his characters; the aria Nessun Dorma from Turandot to hyper-amplify Sampedro’s flight of sea fantasy; and sound editing that morphs Sampedro’s breathing into the crashing waves of the ocean that both abundantly gave and took away much from his life. But it is Bardem's sublime performance that should be remembered. Were this film made by a Hollywood studio – probably as a highly sentimental, maudlin treatment re-purposed for the Lifetime Network – one can easily imagine an angered, emotional protagonist upset over the hand he has been dealt. Bardem's Sampedro internalizes all of that, choosing only to "cry with a smile." Ironically, it is his family, friends and we the audience who are most affected by his choice. Indeed, from almost frame one, he calmly states his objective and never wavers, no matter how much his family, the women who love him or the audience want him to reconsider. Were it up to him, he would have met "a sweet death" in his beloved sea where, 28 years earlier, his accident occurred. The intervening time since has been a long wait at an unforgiving rest stop.
Perhaps there is something to be said for an unspoken bias towards foreign film among the American audiences who go see them. But look elsewhere for a test case, especially considering the thick biopic haze of American-made films considered favorites for this year’s Oscars. The Sea Inside is a demanding film whose merits translate well into any language.