The Sea Inside (Mar adentro, Alejandro Amenábar 2004)

Veera Voutilainen:

A gentle wind blows on an untouched beach. Sunlight brightens up pleasant faces of the two people approaching each other with an overwhelmingly loving look in their eyes. They kiss each other in a certain kind of a tenderly determined way while the sky remains blue.


However, after a couple of seconds, it turns out that the idyllic scene is only a hazy, painful fantasy of a quadriplegic man. The fact that the tenderly tickling wind embracing the breathtakingly stunning couple does not exist in that situation in reality, seems to be the kind of a chain of events that might already reveal the director Alejandro Amenábar. Besides, this kind of a classic scenery of a story, in other words, the way in which a storyteller paints a heavenly intimate scene just to escort the reader back to the hurting company of the bitter truth in the next one, is a very used but efficient way of creating tensions and has got a master called Alejandro Amenábar.
Clearly, the director is famous for his capacity of mixing reality with imaginary worlds, but The Sea Inside is based on a true story. It offers a multitude of conversations on life and death, which makes the film something of an analysis of the society and its crossing influences, even though it most probably wasn’t the purpose of the artist.


Amenábar, one of the most successful and internationally well-known Spanish movie directors, is dedicated to the delicate borders between being awake or asleep, being alive or dead, believing in pure rationality and believing in spiritual reality: the writer and columnist Antonio Sempere has described him as someone who is visually capable of finding undiscovered worlds and atmospheres that are somewhat unhealthy, slightly twisted. 1


Therefore the script of The Sea Inside is full of, besides highly talented actors, interesting discussions, contradictional meetings and impressive sceneries, also polarised opinions and moral point-of-views that reflect to the dialogue as surreptitiously brave everyday discussions about life and death. Still, The Sea Inside manages to avoid the underestimation of its viewer, as Antonio Sempere, freely translated, describes: ”The Sea Inside in all its burden of deepness that it bursts into emotions, is made of weaknesses but remains as a powerful film.”2


Amenábar is especially famous for his films The Thesis and Open Your Eyes, from which The Sea Inside makes an exception to the rule of fictionality by being strongly based on the story of Ramón Sampedro, a man who existed and described his three decades lasting public fight for his right to die in his book Letters From Hell (Cartas desde el infierno).3


Although the focus is anxiously tightly set up in the room where the main character Sampedro lies in his bed, Amenábar builds impressively escapist fragments of wide landscapes where the sea together with the imagination of the protagonist plays a significant role; an element that the main character loves but which was also present when the faithful misadventure of his youth happened.


After hitting his head underneath the surface of the water, in other words after the accident that leads to the paralysis, the water element stays strongly in the memories and dreams of Ramón Sampedro who doesn’t find his life worth living anymore. He becomes an activist on behalf of euthanasia, first of all through his public literal and visual argumentation and second of all through his personal argumentation inside the family, against the will of his traditionally hierarchic big brother and his family that is taking care of him after the accident.


Two different love stories are told. Julia, Ramón’s volutarious attorney feels innerly motivated to help him in his cause. Editing his book and giving him deep sympathy significantly because of her own serious illness, she quickly experiences a deep understanding with the determined man. His other love is Rosa, a single mother of two, who sees Sampedro telling about his wish to die in the television, pays a visit, falls passionately in love and dedicates a lot of time and effort to assure him of the sense of life. Javier Bardem plays his main role of an ironic, intelligent poet-seaman who doesn’t hesitate to smile warmly although he doesn’t experience a single doubt about his goal to die.


On his journey towards euthanasia Sampedro (Bardem) meets plenty of arguments that indirectly blame him for egocentrism.


I am your older brother. As long as I live, no one dies through a suicide in my house.

The argumentation of the religious head of the family, Sampedro’s big brother José, is based on his traditional role as the man and the breadwinner of the family.


I would like to talk to Sampedro and convince him that the life is worth living for the quadriplegics. A quadriplegic priest arguments through the collective we, us and therefore presents the community’s power over the one of an individual; the perspective that the church has strengthened during the complete history of its existence.


I love you. Rosa leans on the power of emotions and makes his will to die something that affects personally her as well, someone who is close enough to get concretely hurt because of his seek for the final exit.


One of the most frequent questions of all the big ones asked in the film is the one presented  basically every time Ramón speaks in public on behalf of his will to pass away. He’ll basically face a shock reaction, a weakly hidden blame of selfishness: Why do you think that the lives of the quadriplegics is not worth living? To this, Ramón frequently answers that he’s only talking about his own right to die.


Offering a confusingly clear overview on different factors of a society’s role in a life of an individual, The Sea Inside pictures a community’s dilemmatic privilege and responsibility in the context of the contradictional question of euthanasia. Amenábar’s characteristics manage to represent such traditional institutions as the religion, the family and the individual, in other words, the so called units of the society on which sociologists have been building the basis of their investigations for ages. A contradiction between activism and patriarchalism is also shown in a clear way. The Sea Inside is a movie about the contradictional caring, but eventually it makes everyone think about themselves as well.


This conversation in the borders of individualism and collectivism in different contexts during Amenábar’s filmatisation is a theme that continues passionately where the movie ends. The critics, the bloggers, the viewers in general have had something personal to say about the issue, about the fundamental question of me and the others, about the issue of the right of an individual to speak only for themselves in this matter.

An example of this personal approach to deal with the movie is the way a critic Robert Ebert writes in his blog: ”This is simply the story of one man. Yes, and on those terms I accept it, and was moved by the humanity and logic of the character.” Then, after this argument, he wishes to share his own experience about the issue: “A high school classmate was paralyzed in his senior year; a few years ago I got news of his romance and marriage. Some of these people have had children, and have raised them competently, lovingly, and well. I remember the remarkable Heather Rose, whose condition limited her to the use of one finger, which she used to tap on a voice synthesizer. She wrote and starred in “Dance Me to My Song,” and flew from Australia to attend my first Overlooked Film Festival. Only recently I got an e-mail from a fellow film critic I have been in communication with for years; discussing this movie, he revealed to me that he is a quadriplegic.” 4


Antonio Sempere, in stead, describes The Sea Inside as an ode to life and love. More than anything, he sees the the movie as a story about a journey in which the man, on his almost three decades long way towards death, is significant for everyone around him.5


Amenábar has commented that his film reopened the discussion of euthanasia in Spain,6 but that it wasn’t any kind of a goal for him or his piece of Oscar-winning art. That being said, it’s interesting to see how remarkable can an afterlife of a product of an artistic process be, even in a completely different way than its creator could have imagined.


The strong emotional reaction to the theme of Amenábar’s movie might be easier to understand when taken into account how constantly euthanasia and its morality are discussed in different scientific fields. Although euthanasia is legal in Netherlands and Belgium, it still remains illegal in the legislation of most of the countries.7 Amenábar describes how the individual’s perspective, in this case the one of Ramón, differs fundamentally from the one of the religious community and the one of the Spanish state.  The filmatised differences in the attitudes towards euthanasia, on one hand, those of the communities and, on the other hand, those of the individuals exist in the field of science as well. For instance, due to a quantitative investigation based in US, of the 988 followed terminally ill decedents, a majority of 60,2 % supported euthanasia or PAS (Physician-assisted suicide) in a hypothetical situation, although only 10,6 % of them could seriously consider the one of the two for themselves.8


In the field of bioethics, a regularly strongly criticized but a rather widely published author called Wesley J. Smith has wrote a passionate argument against the acceptance and legalization of euthanasia in Europe: ”Legalizing  euthanasia changes culture. Not only do the categories of people eligible for euthanasia expand, but the rest of the society generally ceases to think that it matters. This desentisizing, in turn, affects how people perceive the moral value of the seriously ill, disabled and elderly – and perhaps how they view themselves.”9 This religiously moralistic argument brings an individual’s will to die back to the context of a community, in a way that reminds strongly the appearance of the character of the priest in The Sea Inside.


However, that Ramón could only speak for himself during his journey, seems highly improbable to many. This attitude can be noticed both in the personal relations of Amenábar’s main character and in the vivid discussion about euthanasia after The Sea Inside got distributed.


Amenábar manages to raise questions about individual’s rights to think only for himself. Thanks to that, The Sea Inside enhanced a discussion that feels somewhat like a continuation of the filmatisation in real life. Supposedly this is not what’s meant with the praise of Amenábar’s masterful capability of mixing different realities, but the border between art and the so called reality certainly got shady for a while.






ADAMS, Maurice; GRIFFITHS, John; WEYERS, Heleen: Euthanasia and Law in Europe. Oxford: Hart Publishing. 2008.


EMANUEL, Ezekiel J.; EMANUEL, Linda L.; FAIRCLOUGH Diane L. Attitudes and Desires Related to Euthanasia and Physician-Assisted Suicide Among Terminally Ill Patients and Their Caregivers. JAMA. 2000.


SEMPERE, Antonio:  Amenábar, Amenábar. Editorial Club Universitario. 2005. Pages 39-40.


SMITH, Wesley J: Medical Murder. First things. 2013.





The New York Times. (last visit 19.5.2013)


BBC News. (last visit 19.5.2013)


EBERT, Roger. (last visit 19.5.2013)


The Guardian. (last visit 19.5.2013)


El País. (last visit 19.5.2013)






1 SEMPERE, Antonio: Amenábar, Amenábar. Editorial Club Universitario. 2005. Page 205. ”Amenábar, mejor director que guionista, tiene genuina intuición visual para materializar universos inexplorados y atmósferas insanas – -”


2 SEMPERE, Antonio:  Amenábar, Amenábar. Editorial Club Universitario. 2005. Pages 39-40. ”Mar adentro, esa carga de profundidad que revienta en emociones, está hecha de fragilidades, pero es una película poderosísima. Tan poderosa que alcanza nuestro centro y nos abate y nos abre dentro en manantial de emociones, pero nunca abusando de nuestra dignidad como espectadores, nunca anulando la capacidad de discernir las razones de un personaje u otro.”


3 THE NEW YORK TIMES: A Lifelong Battle for the Right to Die 17.12.2004: ”Mr. Amenábar, the gifted 32-year-old director of “The Others” and “Open Your Eyes”, is clearly fixated on the shadowy area between life, death and the spirit world. This time he forsakes science fiction and ghost stories to put his spin on a famous case history.” (last consulted 19.5.2013)



4 EBERT, Roger: Reviews. (last consulted 19.5.2013)


5 SEMPERE, Antonio: Amenábar, Amenábar. Editorial Club Universitario. 2005. Page 21. ”Mar adentro es un canto a la vida, por más que cuente la historia real de un hombre que tras algo más de 28 años tetrapléjicom decidió que le aydas en a morir dignamente. Mar adentro es un canto a la vida y al amor.”


6 BBC NEWS: Sea Inside´s Death Debate. 18.2.2005. (last consulted 19.5.2013)


7 ADAMS, Maurice; GRIFFITHS, John; WEYERS, Heleen: Euthanasia and Law in Europe. Oxford: Hart Publishing. 2008.


8 EMANUEL, Ezekiel J.; EMANUEL, Linda L.; FAIRCLOUGH Diane L. Attitudes and Desires Related to Euthanasia and Physician-Assisted Suicide Among Terminally Ill Patients and Their Caregivers. JAMA. 2000.


9 SMITH, Wesley J: Medical Murder. First things. 2013



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