Ramón Sampedro (Javier Bardem) may be a quadriplegic, but he sure smiles a lot. He makes dark-humored jokes about his own condition, teasing visitors and caretakers. Ramón says that his behavior is meant to put others at ease, and it’s clear that—28 years after the accident that left him paralyzed—he’s grown very good at it.
What’s not so clear, however, is why Ramón wants to die.
The Sea Inside—writer/director Alejandro Amenábar’s (The Others) biography of the real-life Spanish poet and crusader for euthanasia rights—offers a respectful, often funny, sometimes touching portrait of his subject. As an attempt to replicate Ramón’s personality through his struggles, Amenábar’s film may be dead-on, for all I know. But The Sea Inside wants us to take Ramón’s side as he fights for the right to take his own life—and that becomes a serious problem when it often seems that his fight is merely stubbornly theoretical.
Amenábar begins The Sea Inside with Ramón’s first attempts to take his quest for death with dignity to the Spanish courts. Julia (Belén Rueda), an attorney working with a right-to-die advocacy group, comes to Ramón’s home in Galicia, where Ramón’s sister-in-law (Mabel Rivera) and nephew Javi (Tamar Novas) do most of the work of caring for him. As she begins interviewing Ramón, Julia learns of his youth as a world-traveling, adventurous sailor before a dive into shallow ocean water breaks his neck. And she grows closer to him personally, just as working-class single mother Rosa (Lola Dueñas) finds herself similarly drawn to Ramón.
It’s certainly easy to see why this guy becomes such a chick magnet. As played by the ever-more-impressive Bardem (Before Night Falls), Ramón radiates charisma and force of personality, all while writing sensitive poetry. Bardem gives him an easy charm, even as he’s able to lacerate Javi with one withering retort to an insensitive comment. Everything about Ramón suggests someone who has adjusted as remarkably as possible to his situation.
So why doesn’t Ramón want to live? He sobs that question out loud in one of The Sea Inside’s more unfortunately overwrought scenes, but it’s not clear that anyone has the answer. In a cleverly framed sequence, a quadriplegic priest comes to persuade Ramón of the moral perils of euthanasia, while an unfortunate colleague is forced to bring the messages from Ramón upstairs to the priest downstairs, and vice-versa. Their exchange, however, never seems to become more than an intellectual exercise for Ramón. While the photo snippets of his pre-accident bon vivant lifestyle may clearly indicate what Ramón has lost in terms of independence, he never appears to treat his attempt to control his own destiny with passion or intensity. His demeanor suggests someone who wants to kill himself just to prove that he can.
Ramón does demonstrate an active life of the mind, presented with undisguised literalism by Amenábar through sweeping dream images of soaring over mountains, scored to classical music. Amenábar is best known to American audiences for directing the Nicole Kidman thriller The Others (as well as Abre Los Ojos, the source for the Tom Cruise American remake Vanilla Sky), and The Sea Inside certainly marks a departure for the filmmaker whose specialty had been sinister head trips. But he doesn’t seem interested in bringing even a hint of that darker side to this material. In fact, he studiously avoids almost anything that could provide an emotional jolt. Admirable though it may be that The Sea Inside rarely wallows in pathos, it might have been nice to feel that something was truly at stake.
At isolated moments, Amenábar hits on a particularly effective bit of character interaction, or the wrenching impact of being faced with life-or-death decisions. But as the film approaches Ramón’s rather clinical end, it becomes clear that nothing is more important to the filmmakers than making death so completely natural that it simply isn’t worth “Sturm und Drang.” The Sea Inside treats Ramón’s struggle for mortality self-determination as so self-evident that it saps the narrative of conflict. It may have been wonderful that Ramón Sampedro was able to make peace with his decision. For us, the viewers who need to understand him and sympathize with his radical choice, he may have made too much peace with it.
THE SEA INSIDE **.5 Javier Bardem, Belén Rueda, Lola Dueñas. Rated PG-13