Story of tetraplegic campaigner is an unexpected hit for Spanish sex symbol

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Spanish filmgoers are flocking to a film with the unlikely storyline of a tetraplegic who finally succeeds in committing suicide after lying paralysed for 30 years. In its first week Mar Adentro (Out to Sea) has drawn a bigger box office than did Pedro Almodovar's hit Bad Education, and looks set to become Spain's film of the year.

Spanish filmgoers are flocking to a film with the unlikely storyline of a tetraplegic who finally succeeds in committing suicide after lying paralysed for 30 years. In its first week Mar Adentro (Out to Sea) has drawn a bigger box office than did Pedro Almodovar's hit Bad Education, and looks set to become Spain's film of the year.

Starring the Oscar-nominated heart throb Javier Bardem and directed by the talented young Spanish film-maker Alejandro Amenabar, the film is strongly tipped for an award at the Venice festival today and is surely destined to be an international hit.

The role of the middle-aged, paralysed from the neck down Ramon Sampedro might seem an unlikely one for Bardem, but Spanish filmgoers - interviewed nationwide this week as they left cinemas laughing through their tears - are unanimous that Amenabar has created a masterpiece. Already known for The Others, starring Nicole Kidman, the quiet 30-year-old director seems about to supplant Almodovar as the world's favourite Spanish director.

The film tells the real-life story of Sampedro, a vigorous and flirtatious ship's mechanic from a small village who travelled the world before he was 20, and was then crippled when dashed upon rocks while diving on the Galician coast near his home. He never walked again. Sampedro was confined to his bed in his parents' little cottage, cared for by his family and women who, despite his infirmity, fell in love with him.

Intelligent and affectionate, even charismatic, Sampedro responds to their love. But he is tormented by what he considers an absurd and meaningless life, and never wavers in his desire to die. With his women friends' help he succeeds, ingeniously devising a stratagem that protects them from Spain's anti- euthanasia laws.

During years of spiritual agony Sampedro made fruitless court appearances and wrote poems and articles - with a pointer held in his mouth - arguing for his right to die. His passionate clashes with the church and the law captured the imagination and sympathy of most Spaniards before he died in January 1998.

For the film Bardem underwent five hours of make-up every day (at the hands of the British artist Jo Allen, who was responsible for recreating Virginia Woolf's nose for Kidman in The Hours). With his body immobilised, and most of the action confined to his little room around his bed, the film expresses the truth of Sampedro's life - that love springs not from the body but the brain.

For Sampedro, however, this was never enough. A fantastic dream sequence in which the protagonist (ie the camera) rises from his bed and flies from the window of his room, sweeps over the hills and crags of Galicia to pursue and embrace a young woman lawyer who is walking on the beach, reveals his constant frustrated desire to be not just a brain but a body too.

"Ramon's great contradiction is that someone so vital, and who engages so immediately with everyone, pursues his own death," Amenabar said. Someone asks Sampedro in the film how he manages to maintain his lively sense of irony. "It's just that I've learnt to weep laughing," Bardem replies deadpan, perfectly imitating Sampedro's Gallego-accented speech and alert, dancing eyes.

The characters who surround him are his father, grief-stricken for the son who seeks death; his self-denying sister-in-law, who jealously defends her mother-nurse role against what she calls his harem; his young nephew, the son he never had; and the would-be lovers, who assured him that no one had ever loved them as warmly and loyally as he.

These personalities are all drawn from Sampedro's real family and friends and were developed with their collaboration. What results is not only a movie brilliantly acted and filmed, but a characterisation uncannily true to life.

I know this because I met Sampedro one miserable, blustery November afternoon in the Galician capital, Santiago de Compostela, where he participated in a televised debate with a tetraplegic priest who preached the sanctity of life. The confrontation is echoed in Mar Adentro - the title of a poem Sampedro wrote.

After the show, Sampedro asked me to light him a cigarette, which he clenched between his teeth as he explained with a warm and lively gaze that, as a sailor, all he wanted was a welcoming harbour in death, "a haven from this arid life that is nothing but suffering". As he was wheeled back to his vehicle through horizontal sleet, and we said goodbye, Sampedro smiled: "I can feel on my cheek. Give me a kiss." I did. It wasn't morbid, it wasn't creepy. It was life-affirming.

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