I approached The Sea Inside with the sort of dread I reserve for disease-of-the-week made-for-TV movies. Sure, this was a classy production starring a solid, stolid actor, Javier Bardem (Before Night Falls), and guided by a stylish director (Alejandro Amenábar; no matter what you thought of The Others—me, I landed on the “nice Nicole Kidman performance, but it didn’t give me the heebie-jeebies” side—you have to admit it was stylish). But the subject, the true story of a Spanish quadriplegic who implored his government to let himself end his life, is the kind of thing that is so often sentimentalized and rendered with sincere heavy-handedness that no amount of good advance word allayed my reluctance to be manipulated.
Thankfully, the manipulation practiced by Amenábar and Bardem is artful and bracing. Bardem plays Ramón Sampedro, a ship’s mechanic who has been paralyzed from the head down for nearly 30 years—he snapped his neck in a careless swimming accident. Trapped in bed, cared for by his brother’s family, Ramón is a middle-aged man who craves nothing more than an end to the tediousness and ceaseless embarrassment he feels his life imposes upon himself and others. He makes contact with a female lawyer (Belén Rueda) who agrees with his death-with-dignity philosophy and helps him take his case to the government. If I tell you that they fall for each other, and that another woman—a factory worker, Rosa (Lola Dueñas), who befriends Ramón and pleads the opposite argument, that his intelligence and wit make him irreplaceable in the world—also finds herself in love with him, you may think The Sea Inside is, despite its true-story bona fides, rather unbelievable.
And indeed, it is pretty difficult to swallow the romancing, but only in retrospect: The movie’s narrative is so sleekly swift, and Ramón is so persuasively charming and ornery, so plainspoken and agonized, that while you’re watching, you buy it all. At times, Amenábar also anticipates your qualms. Just when you might be wondering why the despairing, death-obsessed Ramón spends so much time smiling, someone asks him just that question, and he replies that when “you depend entirely upon others, you learn to cry with a smile.” The remark is wry and chilling; forced into a state of perennial gratefulness, he is civil, but resentful and suffering.
Amenábar does pretty things with Ramón’s fantasies of getting up, leaping out his window, and flying over vast green stretches of trees to arrive at the ocean. He makes nervy choices such as depicting a quadriplegic priest as a media whore who goes on TV to condemn Ramón and his family for Ramón’s death wish before he even meets them; this smug Jesuit is also clearly meant to be the loser in a debate with Ramón about the right to die. (In the same invigorating spirit of debunking the purity of its characters, I wish the film had included more of Sampedro’s poetry, which I’ll bet, from the bit that’s recited here, stunk.)
Some will find The Sea Inside inspirational—a testament to the power of imposing one’s will upon the world. But the more earthbound among us can simply enjoy the film’s provocative insistence that if one is to be denied the full capacity to love, to experience a full range of emotions and experiences, dying is no disgrace, no sin, no proof of cowardice. I wonder how many viewers will home in on the brief courtroom scenes, in which Amenábar, who co-wrote the film with Mateo Gil, emphasizes that Spain is “a secular country” that should therefore not pass judgments based on being “a slave to your . . . altar-boy conscience,” as Ramón says (in a later moment.) In the current America, viewed by our president as a Christian country, The Sea Inside operates as stealth art: stately, moving, beautifully acted, and urgently subversive to our own status quo.