Disability Studies Quarterly
Summer 2005, Volume 25, No. 3
Copyright 2005 by the Society
for Disability Studies


Amenábar, Alejandro (Writer and Director) & Gil, Mateo (Writer). The Sea Inside. [Film]. 125 minutes, 2004. Fine Line Features release. DVD release date: May 17, 2005.

Reviewed by Deanna McFadden, Freelance Writer

The prescient nature of Alejandro Amenábar's The Sea Inside makes the award-winning film extremely relevant regardless of the fact that the events happened almost 10 years ago. The film tells the captivating and heart-wrenching story of Ramón Sampedro (Javier Bardem, Before Night Falls), a Spanish man who, after a diving accident rendered him quadriplegic in 1968, fought for 30 years to end his own life.

Ramón lives a quiet life with his family on their farm on the beautiful Galician coast. Tenderly and exceptionally cared for by his sister-in-law, Manuela (Mabel Rivera), and with many good friends, Sampedro has an active mind and spirit. A beautiful, human story evolves through his relationships and his everyday life: An ordinary man is forced, by extraordinary circumstances, into a life he never expected to live.

There are also two important women in the film and they form the picture's central love triangle: Julia (Belén Rueda), the disabled lawyer suffering from a degenerative disease, who leads Sampedro's case; and Rosa (Lola Dueñas), an unemployed factory worker and single mother, who wants to convince him to live. In different ways, these two women heighten Ramón's exceptional character while at the same time exploring the nature and essence of love.

Julia and Ramón, over the course of both working on his case and on his bestselling book, Carstas Desde El Infierno (Letters From Hell), develop romantic feelings for one another. An impossible situation heightened by the tenderness of one longing kiss, Julia promises to die with him once the book is published. Ramón believes he's found his salvation. Yet, when Julia does not have the strength to keep her promise, it's Rosa who spends his last few days with him, and then assists with his suicide.

Ramón's deep-seeded belief in the concept of dignity sits at the center of his argument as he fights for his legal right to die. The Sea Inside isn't simply a filmed debate on the issue of euthanasia; it's an intensely personal representation of the life of one disabled man who wanted the court to recognize his right to choose life or death. Amenábar remains true to the story, which necessarily means portraying the very real and very vocal objection to Sampedro's decision by many people both in and out of his life.

The opposition comes from all sides: It comes from judges who refuse to change the letter of the law; it comes from his brother, who fights with him until the end, afraid for his immortal soul; and it comes from the Catholic Church, where a paralyzed priest takes up the cause. A deeply personal and extremely engaging dichotomy evolves as each character presents his/her opinions about Ramón's decision; there are those who support the decision, and there are those who do not. Without condemning the detractors, the film explores the nature of their opposition; it brings forward the truth in their position as easily as it supports the story of Ramón himself.

However, The Sea Inside does present a stark difference between Ramón now with his withered body, grey hair, sallow skin, and the bronze, beautiful sailor he was in his youth. In one simple flashback to 1968, the camera pauses for a moment before he dives in and hits his head hard on the bottom instantly snapping his neck. For a second Ramón floats, weightless, until someone pulls him out of the water.

Then, the sea becomes a literal metaphor for Sampedro's life. Once a sailor who traveled the world by water, he is now confined to flying over it in his dreams, smelling it from his window, watching it lovingly the night before he dies. For Sampedro, the sea is life. It symbolizes the struggle for him to achieve dignity in what he feels is an undignified situation. He no longer wants to burden his family with his care, and despite his intellectual pursuits, despite loving friends and family, Sampedro believes that he should have the freedom to die.

The Sea Inside brings idealistic existential arguments and blends them freely with a quietly heroic tale. The ongoing debate in the film is not whether or not living with a disability can equal a life of dignity, purpose, and usefulness. In fact, Ramón's everyday existence–involving his inventions, his writing, his intellectual pursuits–proves it can. No, the debate surrounds the definition of dignity to Sampedro himself, how this one decision empowers him in a situation where he feels utterly powerless.

The dignity he craves comes with the ability to exercise control over his own life after days, months, even years of his life being in the hands of other people. In the end, there's a quiet irony to the longing he has to end his life, that in order to find his dignity, he can and must rely upon the hands of another human being that one last time in order to fulfill his wish.