Alejandro Amenabar's "The Sea Inside," based on the true story of a Spanish quadriplegic who fought for 30 years for the right to end his life, isn't as much of a downer as its subject matter would suggest, thanks to some sly humor and a strong performance from Javier Bardem.
It's a complex role that requires Bardem, who plays Ramon Sampedro, to be funny and flirty, stubborn and short-tempered, often in a single scene - a task made even more challenging because the actor was confined to a bed nearly the entire time.
There are also some moments of real wonder, both in Sampedro's fantasies - when he can soar across meadows and over mountains to return to the seaside he loves - and in reality, as he finds an unexpected emotional intimacy with a lawyer (the naturally beautiful Belen Rueda) who helps him argue his case.
Years after a diving accident left him paralyzed, Ramon lies in bed, writing and messing around with a makeshift computer he operates with a stick in his mouth. Family members - who are drawn a bit thinly in the script from director Amenabar and co-writer Mateo Gil, except for Ramon's strong-willed sister-in-law, Manuela (Mabel Rivera) - enter and leave his room, help him with basic human functions, listen to music with him and watch soccer on his TV.
He's totally matter-of-fact about his desire to "die with dignity," as he calls it. "Death has always been with us and always will be," he says. And in a witty, sharply worded exchange, he spars with a Catholic priest who opposes euthanasia (and also happens to be a quadriplegic), though they have to yell at each other through a stairway because the priest's wheelchair won't fit upstairs and Ramon refuses to be brought down.
Toward the end of his life, Ramon finds himself involved with two women: his lawyer, Julia (Rueda), who suffers from a degenerative disease herself and walks using a cane; and Rosa (Lola Duenas), a single mother of two who sees him discussing his legal fight on TV and wants to convince him to stay alive (though clearly she hopes to redeem herself in the process). What he shares with them isn't romantic love, but it isn't purely friendship, either. Amenabar avoids categorizing the relationships, just as he avoids judging or deifying the film's subject.
Bardem, the handsome, engaging actor who received an Academy Award nomination for playing Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas in "Before Night Falls," is nearly unrecognizable when he's made up to look 20 years older. The Oscar buzz has long since begun, and it is merited.
Similarly, "The Sea Inside" is unrecognizable as an Amenabar film. You won't find the mysterious gothic aesthetic that has become the young director's trademark after just a few films, including "Open Your Eyes" (which was Americanized as "Vanilla Sky") and "The Others," starring Nicole Kidman.
Despite the film's innately serious nature, Amenabar often uses bright colors and light to tell the story. His flashbacks to Ramon's accident are especially vivid - a swirl of blue water and streams of sunlight.
Watching this is likely to inspire conflicted responses among the audience. You want to root for him to succeed in his quest (which he did in 1998 at age 55 despite losing his court battle) because he has made his points convincingly and with simple elegance; yet, you don't want him to go anywhere, because he's a joy to watch and so obviously a source of inspiration to everyone he meets.
"The Sea Inside," a Fine Line Features release, is rated PG-13 for intense depiction of mature thematic material. In Spanish with English subtitles. Running time: 125 minutes. Three stars out of four.