The Sea Inside directed by Alejandro Amenábar, written by Amenábar and Mateo Gil, produced by Amenábar and Fernando Bovaira, with Javier Bardem, Belén Rueda, Lola Dueñas and Mabel Rivera. 125 minutes. A Fine Line Features production. An Odeon Films release. Opens Friday (December 17). Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Javier Bardem gives a beautifully restrained performance as Ramón Sampedro, a real-life Spanish quadriplegic who fought for 30 years for the right to die by assisted suicide. Too bad what could have been an important contribution to the euthanasia debate is undermined by poor characterization. And what's with the ear-shattering score?
We meet Ramón as a middle-aged man dependent on his family to feed, dress and bathe him. The accident that left him paralyzed is shown in vivid detail, many times, but it's left to us to imagine the day-to-day pain of his life.
Writer-director Alejandro Amenábar appears to be going for subtlety with this omission, but then the ostentatious soundtrack undermines his purpose by trying to force an emotional response when the script fails to elicit one.
Two women come into Ramón's life, his lawyer, Julia (Belén Rueda), and Rosa (Lola Dueñas), a single mother who wants him to abandon his fight. Both fall in love with him, but Ramón's battle has its greatest impact on Manuela (Mabel Rivera), his sister-in-law and primary care-giver.
Manuela doesn't want Ramón to die, but she believes his wishes should be respected and knows her life would be easier without him. The play of conflicting emotions across her face is a wonder.
Freedom of choice is the point of this story, which, Amenábar makes clear, does not speak for other disabled people. "Who said anything about quadriplegics?" Ramón asks. "I'm talking about me."
But love of life (or fear of death) is too strong for most viewers, who need more than agreement in principle to identify with Ramón. A pity, because stories like this need to be told, if only to remind us how easily all types of freedom can be taken away.