Spanish Film of the Week

Mar Adentro (2004)

‘When you spend so long in people’s care, you learn to cry with a smile.’

In Alejandro Amenábar’s moving film, Javier Bardem gives the performance of a lifetime as Ramon Sampedro, the Galician sailor and poet who, paralyzed from the neck down following a diving accident, fights the Spanish law courts and church in his struggle to end his life by euthanasia.

Thirty years have gone by since the accident which has made him a prisoner in his own bed. Everyone has their opinions about his right to die. The media, the church, his community. But his mind is made up. He has even rejected a breath-controlled wheelchair as parodic of his lost former freedom. Now, two very different women visit him in his bedroom overlooking the sea. One is Belen Rueda’s attractive, sympathetic, but troubled lawyer, who is determined to assist him in his legal battle. The other is a salt-of-the-earth local radio DJ and factory worker (Lola Dueñas), who, with her refreshingly joyous view of life, is determined to convince him to live on.

The resulting drama unfolds through Sampedro's dovetailing interactions with these two women, as well as flashbacks to scenes of his youth before the accident, and a love-hate relationship with the family he depends on; his bad-tempered father Joaquin, long-suffering brother Jose and sister-in-law Manuela (also Ramon’s carer), and introverted nephew, Javier. The film focuses not only on Sampedro’s fight to end his ordeal, but on the stress on his carers, and the influence of his friendship on the two new women in his life.

Particularly memorable; the scenes where Sampedro flies out of his bedroom window over the Galician seashore; the performance of Lola Dueñas, who falls in love with and is changed by Sampedro, but can’t make him change his mind about his own life; there is also a memorably perturbing scene where wheelchair-bound Catholic priest Padre Francisco visits Sampedro to launch a scathing attack on him. The priest has to launch his verbal inquisition from downstairs via a tongue-tied personal assistant, as his aides can’t get his wheelchair up the stairs to Sampedro’s room.

But the chief highlight is Bardem's interpretation of a man whose conviction about his own destiny is firm, but must convince everyone else of his right to fulfil it.

Mar Adentro received a surprisingly lukewarm critical reception in the UK press (The Guardian film review in particular called it ‘very mediocre’ and described Bardem’s performance as ‘droll, humorous, flirtatious and courageous in the approved Hollywood Disabled Person manner’). But in Spain it swept the awards at the GOYAS and won best foreign-language film at the Oscars, and it remains a powerful portrait of a man trapped in a body he no longer wishes to inhabit and the concentric circles of human relationships around him, showcasing some of Spain’s finest actors excelling under Alejandro Amenábar’s sensitive direction.

From here, Bardem's career in particular, would take flight, going on to become an international leading man in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, while gaining a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor as the chillingly patient assassin Anton Chigurh in the Coen Brothers' flick No Country for Old Men, and receiving ecstatic reviews in the compelling Iñarritu film Biutiful, which featured Bardem as a mortally-sick racketeer caught up in the black market underworld of Barcelona.

The Hispano-Chilean director Amenábar, who had already worked in Hollywood on The Others, would later helm the most expensive Spanish movie in history, Agora, about the destruction of ancient Alexandria by religious fanatics. But, this film, together with his earlier film, Abre Los Ojos, remains his best Spanish film.

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