Alejandro Amenábar's The Sea Inside tells the true story of Ramón Sampedro, a Galician fisherman paralyzed in a diving accident. As played by Javier Bardem, Sampedro is a mass of coiled frustrations, frayed sexual impulse, wisdom, and denial. Confined, partly by his own willfulness, to his bed, Sampedro wages a public battle to enable his own euthanasia, rides the emotional sine waves of family and friends, and develops his own brand of poetic philosophy. "When you learn you are dependent on others," he muses, "you learn to cry with a smile."
Bardem's impeccable performance transforms him physically and emotionally over the course of the picture; the young Sampedro is a tall, dark Adonis, while the middle-aged paraplegic is an awkward lump whose remaining hair has thinned to gray wisps. As in any picture about age, the young man still resides within Sampedro, but the frustration of time is compounded by his handicap. To cope, he takes high-flying mind-trips to the sea (an expression of the freedom of spirit he seeks).
The irony of how much this man accomplishes while paralyzed is not lost on Amenábar. Ramón loves to debate—a highly developed thinker, he stirs the people around him to the action he cannot take or the feelings he cannot dare, through reason, the emotional sway of his writing efforts, or his apparently cynical streak of humor. His biggest challenges are emotional ones: deflecting or rehabilitating the love of his legal defender Julia (Belén Rueda), who has good reason to understand his plight, and Rosa (Lola Dueñas), a needy woman who soaks up Ramón's counsel.
Despite Ramón's obvious worth as an individual, the film remains true to his point-of-view, his stubborn insistence that—despite his art, his family, and his newfound opportunity to love—he wants to die. Every mental and emotional aspect of his life is sharpened, and with plenty of time to think, Ramón can outwit anyone (including, in one memorable scene, the paraplegic priest who hopes to change Sampedro's mind). As his relationship with Julia deepens, Ramón finds the equally transcendent sex and death to be increasingly confused. When he quips to his sister that he is "spoken for," she replies, "Yes, by death." Later, calling Julia "Juliet," Sampedro describes the assistance of suicide as "love shared in its purest form."
Amenábar's script (co-written with Mateo Gil) refuses to judge those who choose life, and his creative approach never allows the boxed-in story to stifle. If anything, his lush treatment (including those meditative escapes scored to "Nessun Dorma") may be a touch overripe, and despite the notion that "total dependency comes at the expense of intimacy," the director sidesteps the more profane realities of a bedridden existence. Still, Amenábar's lyricism and Bardem's keen projection of dignified commitment enable The Sea Inside movingly to evoke humanity affronted, from both sides of the euthanasia debate.