The true story of a Spanish quadriplegic campaigning to get the law changed so that he may choose to end his life without recrimination for those who help him. Javier Bardem stars in this dramatisation from Alejandro Amenábar, director of The Others
After his international success with The Others, Alejandro Amenábar could easily have gone to Hollywood to feed at the studio trough. Instead, he returned to Spain to create a beautiful, heart-wrenching work that will have you in floods of tears by the final quarter. Based on a true story, it might be easy to dismiss Mar Adentro as a ‘disease-of-the-week’ movie, were it not for Javier Bardem’s incredible turn as Ramón Sampedro.
It’s 1996 and Sampedro - now in his mid-50s - has been confined to his bed for the last 28 years after being paralysed from the neck down following a diving accident.
The film begins as he is introduced to Julia (Belen Rueda), a lawyer who agrees to present his case in court (and later helps him publish a book, ‘Letters From Hell’, about his experiences). His need is simple. Refusing a wheelchair as it represents the “crumbs” of what freedom he has left, he wants to die. As he says, “I believe that living is a right, not an obligation.” But the law in Spain will punish anyone who helps him. While some support his plight, others - such as a similarly incapacitated priest and also his brother, who thinks “he’ll have to live as long as God wills” - do not. The story takes a turn when Julia discovers she has a degenerative brain disease, initially leading her to suggest that the pair die together in a suicide pact. While Sampedro is attracted to her - despite the fact she’s married - he also gets close to Rosa (Lola Dueñas), a separated mother-of-two who makes ends meet by working at a canning factory. She visits Sampedro, he thinks, to make her feel better about her own life - although she claims it is to help him realise life is worth living. They soon become dependant upon each other, ultimately forging a bond that will tear Sampedro from his family.
At the same time, Julia drifts out of the narrative with only a postscript in the story to reveal why. It leaves the film’s second half feeling rather unbalanced, but it scarcely matters, given that Amenábar concentrates on cranking up the emotions.
Depending on your point of view, what follows is either sentimental claptrap or highly moving. We glimpse Sampedro’s past life - when he travelled the world working on a boat - via a series of photographs that remind us how active he once was. As he listens to opera we witness how he returns, in his mind (with the camera flying across the countryside) to the sea, the scene for him of so much pleasure and pain. And we experience the moment when he finally leaves his bed to travel to La Coruña and sees simple scenes of daily life around him. All of it will melt even the hardest of hearts.
While Amenábar narrowly avoids being accused of manipulation, the film never feels like a campaign for euthanasia - perhaps because at its core is Bardem. Confined to bed, with a body left limp, he just has his face to express anger and joy. With those sad eyes of his, the actor who impressed in films like The Dancer Upstairs and Before Night Falls takes his work to another level. Avoiding simplification, he brings to life a fully-rounded character, as dignified as he is bitter. As he says, “When you depend on others, you learn to cry by smiling.” It’s a fine tribute to Ramón Sampedro, who died in 1998.
Immensely moving, Mar Adentro is an astounding piece of work with a captivating performance from Javier Bardem. Stunningly directed by Alejandro Amenábar, he shows yet again what a precocious talent he is.