On The Sea Inside Before Night Falls

DECEMBER 20, 2021  


Javier Bardem in 2000's Before Night Falls.


hen The Sea Inside (2004) begins sometime in the mid-1990s, the movie version of its subject, poet and onetime seaman Ramón Sampedro (Javier Bardem), clarifies that he believes the last quarter century of his life has been a waste. In 1968, the year he turned 25,

Sampedro did a swan dive off a cliff into the ocean at a beautiful summer day’s climax. Rather than relish in the water’s cool embrace, he was hit with the hard realization of misjudgment — i.e., the snap of his neck.


Sampedro is no stranger to hearing that it’s a miracle that he lived, but he’s partial to thinking of his rescue as something of an act of cruelty. A quadriplegic ever since the accident — and one that refuses to use a wheelchair because it’s like accepting the scraps of freedom he lost, he says — Sampedro hasn’t wavered in his belief that he should have the right to die by his own hand. He doesn’t think of himself as hopelessly suicidal so much as practical. If he can’t live a life like he wants (before the accident he was an active traveler), he thinks it pointless to carry on confined to his bed, dependent on the dutiful family members that are adamant they don’t consider him burdensome.

There’s no ambiguity around Sampedro’s ultimate fate. He died six years before The Sea Inside’s release, at age 55, by a carefully planned assisted suicide that made his collaborators impossible to prosecute. The movie, a work of speculative fiction, doesn’t turn his fate into a set piece; it occurs off camera. The film avoids sensationalism; it’s more into capturing Sampedro’s humanity and taking seriously his controversial outlook. We finish the movie affected by his fortitude around having complete autonomy over his own death. Aided by one of the many convincing and thorough physical transformations of his career, Bardem has an effortless poignance. He’s an actor possessing a kind of empathy so deeply felt it almost diffuses — often through his soft eyes, here encased in grayish contacts — even in performances into which he’s meant to completely disappear.

The film, written by Mateo Gil and director Alejandro Amenábar, also skillfully establishes the Sampedro household dynamic — a loving but tense one aggravated by Sampedro’s preoccupation with his death pushing against family members who’d rather he stick around — and the important relationships he develops with two women. There’s Julia (Belén Rueda), a lawyer with a right-to-die organization who decides to help him with his legal battle (and with whom Sampedro will fall in love), and there’s Rosa (Lola Dueñas), a disaffected disk jockey and single mother who after seeing Sampedro on TV bikes over to his house and essentially forces her way into a friendship. (She succeeds despite some early, and not necessarily off-the-mark, concerns by Sampedro that her interest lies somewhat in trying to give her life some meaning.) 

The Sea Inside is a solid drama with good performances and moments of true pathos; it’s also thoughtful about its discussions around disability, ensuring it’s clear that all the talk about having no dignity, about life not being fully lived, relate to how Sampedro feels about himself specifically and not everyone living with a disability. But the movie never quite surpasses that merely “solid” marker. Though it has some visually interesting abstract flourishes illustrating Sampedro’s fantasies of what his life could be, its presentation is of a piece with the static and impersonal style favored by TV movies, which might disappoint those taken with the aesthetic tremor of something like The Others (2001), Amenábar’s previous film. And it regards Sampedro’s first 25 years of life before the accident, as well as conflicting views on suicide from those living lives similar to Sampedro’s, as something to transiently invoke rather than spend meaningful time with, additionally robbing the movie from feeling fuller, more considered. But at its best The Sea Inside is successfully celebratory of its subject without downplaying the anguish he felt over what it is he lost.


our years before the release of The Sea Inside, Bardem played another writer faced with acute adversity. In Before Night Falls, Bardem becomes Reinaldo Arenas, a Cuban novelist who endured increasingly omnipresent discrimination the more the Havana he moved to in the

1960s grew hostile to a gayness he didn’t try hiding. (In the 1970s, Arenas even served prison time following a false campaign against him as a molester.) The movie spans Arenas’ entire life, with childhood flashbacks stylistically resembling audioless home videos given clarity through voiceover narration. Otherworldly, apart-from-the-main-narrative sequences meant to educe Arenas’ oft-lyrical way of seeing additionally interrupt the main thrust of the movie’s storyline, too. 


Like The Sea InsideBefore Night Falls contains an enrapturing performance by Bardem — one of immense frustration kept sane perhaps by the film’s subject’s ability to ventilate his pain through writing. But whereas Amenábar’s direction was steady if a little formally bland with The Sea Inside, Before Night Falls’ director, Julian Schnabel, keeps us at arm’s length, and includes bouts of dark humor (look to the short stretch of the film involving Johnny Depp) that feel out of step with the movie’s otherwise consistent seriousness around its severe and oftentimes scary circumstances. Schnabel employs a naturalistic visual style (handheld cameras, fondness for natural light) in a way that seems meant to suggest authenticity and depth. But since the screenplay feels a bit like it’s speeding through its subject’s life, both are for the most part neutralized. Bardem’s Oscar-nominated performance makes Before Night Falls worth seeing, though; shame it’s in service to a movie not quite as strong as his typically thought-through work. 


The Sea Inside: B

Before Night Falls: C+