If you’re told that this film is the tale of a man paralyzed for nearly thirty years who struggles against government strictures to win the right to die with dignity, you might think that “The Sea Inside” must be a typical heart-tugging telefilm of the sort you might find on Lifetime or the Hallmark Channel. In one respect you’d be right: the film does carry a strong emotional quotient, and it could be described as highly manipulative. But it’s far from being a standard-issue tearjerker. Thanks to sensitive writing and direction by Alejandro Amenabar, an unusual locale (Catholic Spain), a truly remarkable performance from Javier Bardem, and excellent support from the rest of the cast, the picture rises above its generic roots to emerge as a powerful human drama.
The film is the fact-based story of Ramon Sampedro (Bardem), a virile seaman who was severely injured in a diving accident in the late sixties and bedridden thereafter, unable to move from the neck down. He’s lived ever since in the family’s house in Galicia with his quietly brooding father Joaquin (Joan Dalmou), his gruff older brother Jose (Celso Bugallo) and his anxious wife Manuela (Mabel Rivera), and their engaging teenage son Javier (Tamar Novas). Jose considers it his duty to provide for his incapacitated brother, and Manuela cares for him with a devotion tinged by hints of romantic affection; Javier, meanwhile, looks upon his uncle as a second father. By the late nineties, Ramon has decided that he wishes to seek the right to end his life legally, and despite the uncomprehending attitude of his father, the outright hostility of his brother, the sad resignation of his sister-in-law and the simple refusal to accept reality of his nephew, he secures, through the agency of right-to-die partisans Gene (Clara Segena) and Marc (Francesc Garrido), the services of Julia (Belen Rueda), a lawyer herself suffering from a degenerative disease, to prepare for his court presentation. The notoriety the case achieves attracts the notice of Rosa (Lola Duenas), a single mother and local radio DJ, who comes to visit him, as well as of a quadriplegic priest (Jose Maria Pou), who comes to the house to dissuade Ramon from his goal. The narrative naturally leads up to the court hearing and its aftermath.
“The Sea Inside” could easily have turned mawkish and crudely calculating, but it doesn’t. Much of the credit must go to Amenabar, who, in concert with cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, eschews the highly stylized look of his earlier films (like “The Others”) for one that remains elegant but is far more direct, and who forgoes a simplistic approach, carefully building into the script he’s co-written with Mateo Gil a sense of real complexity. This can be seen best in the character of Sampedro himself, who’s portrayed as a figure of many sides and differing emotional reactions–someone who can laugh as well as rage, who works at helping others (building bridges, for example, between Joaquin and Javier) even as he lies immobile, who’s neither a flawless hero or a mere victim. From the manner in which the character is written–and played, beautifully and with amazing charisma and depth by Bardem despite the physical restrictions–it’s entirely credible that he should be the focus of romantic attraction (and understated rivalry) on the part of all three women in his life, who, in the excellently varied performances of Rueda, Duenas and Rivera, effectively represent the different possible reactions toward Ramon’s desire to die among those who love him. But the issue raised by the film is treated with welcome nuance elsewhere as well. Even the sequence in which Ramon meets with the doctrinaire priest, while given a humorous touch by the presence of a couple of hapless seminarians who must carry their messages up and down the stairs of the family house, doesn’t offer a cut-and-dried argument either way. There’s no doubt that Amenabar’s film sympathizes with Sampedro, but it shows the pain–as well as the release–of the choice he makes, and offers evidence of alternatives to it, too.
The theme of “The Sea Inside” might seem forbidding, but in the event the film is far from being so. Despite the potentially depressing theme it’s ironically more life-affirming than not. At once poignant but uplifting, Amenabar’s picture–to which he’s also contributed a sweeping score that accentuates its richly emotional tone–dramatizes a complicated personal and political issue in a satisfyingly multifaceted way.