- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 16, 2004

“The Sea Inside” continues Javier Bardem’s experimentation with roles that obstruct his matinee-idol appeal while perhaps accelerating his future as a versatile character actor.

Mr. Bardem cut a stolid but imposing figure as a beefy, bearded malcontent in “Mondays in the Sun.” He is immobilized from the shoulders down in most of “The Sea Inside,” a polemical biopic-tear-jerker directed by the talented young Alejandro Amenabar, who rose to prominence with “Open Your Eyes” and “The Others.”

A former ship’s mechanic, the late Ramon Sampedro was paralyzed during a diving accident, re-enacted in flashback. Evidently, he miscalculated the undertow in a familiar cove and was nearly drowned as the sea threatened to engulf his stricken body, pulled to the surface by an alert companion. Ramon waged a prolonged lobbying and legal campaign to end his life with a lethal substance. He succeeded in 1998, at the age of 55, after 30 years of endeavor.

The movie encounters Ramon at the end of his quest, cared for by a loyal family that consists of older brother Jose (Celso Bugallo), sister-in-law Manuela (Mabel Rivera), nephew Javi (Tamar Novas) and grandfather Joaquin (Joan Dalmau), all displaying signs of strain despite their solidarity. There also is a conspicuous auxiliary of volunteer nurses and admirers who make up a kind of miniature harem: Belen Rueda as a dreamy attorney named Julia; Lola Duenas as a part-time factory worker and confirmed optimist named Rosa; and Clara Segura as an activist with the civil rights organization that has made Ramon its figurehead and lighting rod, Death With Dignity.

Because Ramon remains intellectually active and the focus of several people with idealistic stakes in his fate, whether for or against self-execution, the “quality of life” issue is a bit complicated. He’s even a best-selling poet. Jose is such a vociferous advocate for preserving life to the utmost that you’re a little confused by Ramon’s apparent docility at remaining under his roof for so long.

Evidently, it was important to him and his followers to press a legal argument for as long as possible. Getting in late on a chronicle that Europeans may have followed for years, one may need to make allowances for narrative shortcuts.

The physical limits dictated by the role of Ramon are part of what makes it a challenge for an actor, especially one who has traded on vitality and potency. The irony is that Mr. Bardem might seem even more of a fantasy catch while pretending to be soulful but physically helpless. There’s a curiously perverse suspense element: Which of the harem is more likely to assist Ramon’s departure?

The euthanasia argument is at its weakest when the filmmakers seem to go out of their way to scorn the Catholic Church, or residual pious sentiment at large. We’re told, for example, that two-thirds of the Spanish public is just fine with enlightened euthanasia. The real Ramon may have debated his decision countless times with many well-wishers. The movie falls short of summarizing that process as eloquently as the subject demands.

An odd and arguably sneaky element of pathos is introduced when an associate succumbs to a degenerative neurological malady that attacks brain functions. As a result, the filmmakers’ intention to champion Ramon is somewhat clouded by the thought that he may have been spared the crueler form of misfortune.

***

TITLE: “The Sea Inside”

RATING: PG-13 (Adult thematic content involving severe injury and suicide; occasional profanity, domestic conflict and sexual allusions)

CREDITS: Directed by Alejandro Amenabar. Written by Mr. Amenabar and Mateo Gil. Cinematography by Javier Aguirresarobe. Production design by Benjamin Fernandez. Costumes by Sonia Grande. Special makeup design by Jo Allen. Music by Mr. Amenabar and Carlos Nunez. In Spanish with English subtitles.

RUNNING TIME: 125 minutes

WEB SITE: www.theseainside.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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