This film is a tour de force in all respects. It is an agonizing story of
man's control over his destiny that's so well done you may feel guilty about
its entertainment value and its gripping fascination with the central
All is not well with Ramon Sampedro (Javier Bardem). This ex-ship mechanic
is charming, tasteful, intelligent, and humorous, all of which he displays
from his bed, where he's been confined since the accident that parlyzed him
thirty years ago. In that time, he's learned to write using a self-designed
stick in his mouth but not to accept things as they are.
Those around him feel deep respect and love--even his teenage nephew Javi
(Tamar Novas) is devoted. From the lawyers who have been pleading his case
to his family members, they attempt to fulfill his limited life. They dote
on him, amuse him, provide every need or desire. Except for the thing he
wants most. To die.
But he wants to do it under legal sanction and the Spanish laws and judges
are as closed to the idea of legalizing euthanasia as they would be to
granting citizenship to apes. Just like many another country. At the point
where the story begins, Gene' (Clara Segura), an attractive straight talker
who is half the legal team that has been fighting the case valiantly and
persistently in the courts, is bringing in Julia (Belen Rueda), a new lawyer
with specialized credentials.
This new addition to the legal component of the case shows up walking with a
cane and is ravishingly beautiful. We learn later that Sampedro, who is as
obdurate as he is witty, and has continually vetoed any other additions to
his team of legal advisors, agreed to Julia's participation in his case
because she's a victim of a degenerative disease. Only a fellow
invalid need apply.
When Rosa (Lola Duenas), a struggling worker in a nearby town sees Sampedro's
appearance on TV, she senses a strong pull of understanding and wishes to
meet him. She bicycles over for the meet (audience? interview?) and, despite
his cold dashes of reality concerning anything other than a platonic thanks
and piss off, she becomes deeply enamored and supportive--except where it
might come to helping him fulfill his wish.
So, now, in addition to Manuela (Mabel Rivera), his purely faithful
sister-in-law and primary caregiver, two women who are prone to be jealous of
one another as his time is divided between them, enter deeply into his life.
So deeply, that their concepts of death and love evolve in unexpected ways.
The impact Sampedro has on all around him proves to be profound.
Which may sound overly sentimental to some ears and, perhaps exploitative.
Certainly we find compelling stories in which individuals overcome
indomitable odds. Movie makers have been all too eager to take advantage of
the legions of suckers for a handicap story or terminal disease ("Love
Story", "Lorenzo's Oil", "The Barbarian Invasions." But this film rises
above that norm. It does so out of the sheer depth of Bardem's magnetism,
talent and screen-filling presence. (See "Mondays in the Sun" and "Before Night Falls").
Were he the actual Sampedro on whom the story was based, the attachment and
love he instinctively inspires from everyone who enters his space would be
uncontestable. This actor is a powerhouse of vital instincts. Comparisons
to Orson Welles and Marlon Brando are wholly appropriate, which John
Malkovich knew when he cast him in his first directorial effort, "The Dancer Upstairs."
The supporting cast consistently gives us a portrait of humanity at its
irrepressibly best, little doubt arises as to the movie-making
expertise of Alejandro Amenabar ("Open Your Eyes", "Thesis"), a director with
the kind of incisive judgement and taste to inject deep emotions into a
high-stakes, thought-provoking context. His leaning toward uncharted areas
of human psychology and departure from an accepted "norm" is to be
applauded. He co-wrote this with close friend and collaborator Mateo Gil and
cast it from talents in the Spanish cinema as well as TV. Belen, whose
beauty is far more than superficial, whose dimensions go into deep areas of
complexity, has been (up to now?) a TV personality.
Lola Duenas (the nurse in Almodovar's "Talk To Her") simply excels as a woman with a touch of
brazen persistence and character uniqueness in search of fulfillment. Her
beauty is of a whole other kind. Similarly, Clara Segura, who plays a part
that might be dismissed as a plot function. She delivers a key figure,
however, who expresses the very dilemma between the purely legal and the
deeper life-supporting issues. In a performance that represents us, the
citizenry, in the difficult juggling of values, she's worthy of our praise
My feeling is that the subject of euthanasia is not likely to be better
addressed or more cinematically presented. World cineastes who have not
yet discovered or paid homage to Spanish filmmaking talent would be well
advised to concentrate time in this area. A study of Bardem's and Amenabar's
work will be hugely rewarding. Promise!
~~ Jules Brenner