Alejandro Amenabar's "The Sea Inside" arrives garlanded with festival prizes, Golden Globe nominations and strong indications that this Spanish entry is the movie to beat for the foreign-film Oscar. It's possible that Javier Bardem will get a best-actor nomination for his subtle, soulful performance as Ramon Sampedro, a bedridden quadriplegic who spent 28 years fighting in the courts for the right to die with dignity.
Sampedro, whose case was a media sensation in Spain, was a husky sailor with a lust for life when he was crippled in a diving accident near his home in Galicia. Unable to use his body, he wrote poems, gave TV interviews and published a memoir, "Letters From Hell." The force of his wry, rational, seductive personality drew women from all around. In Amenabar's film, he is cared for by his sister-in-law (Mabel Rivera) and doted on by two women, one a stunning lawyer (Belen Rueda), also suffering from a degenerative disease, who falls in love with him while working to help him die.
The 32-year-old Amenabar ("The Others") has talent to spare. It's a testament to his cinematic flair that he has taken as daunting a subject as euthanasia and turned it into a crowd-pleasing movie. It's also an indication of what feels wrong here. I can't deny that I was moved, but it all goes down a bit too easy. Can a movie be too well made for its own good? Stylish and painterly, with moments of great lyricism as the camera, inside Sampedro's fantasizing mind, flies over the Spanish countryside to the sea while Puccini soars on the soundtrack, the film does everything in its power to escape the claustrophobia inherent in the story, but fails to convey the living hell--and loss of dignity--that compels Sampedro to end his own life. The estheticism works as an anesthesia. What we are shown of Sampedro's life is so full of incident, passion and, yes, dignity that his death wish becomes an abstraction.
As an investigation into the ethical dilemmas of assisted suicide, "The Sea Inside" only scratches the surface. But through Bardem's powerfully restrained turn, Amenabar pays tribute to a paradoxical hero who had the power to inspire people with a passion for life even as he worked tirelessly to find a way out of it.