In his fantasies, poet Ramón Sampedro swept across the Spanish countryside and its expansive beaches, soaring above the landscape with transcendental grace. In reality, he was a quadriplegic man who wanted to die, masking his sadness with insufferable wit and fighting a nearly 30-year-long battle for the right to end his life.“The Sea Inside,” winner of this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, is a dramatized take on the true story of Sampedro (Javier Bardem, “Collateral”) beginning 22 years after the diving accident that paralyzed him from the neck down. The film opens as two new women enter his life: A sensitive lawyer (Belén Rueda) and a local radio host (Lola Dueñas, “Talk to Her”), both of whom eventually fall in love with him in their own ways. “The Sea Inside” explores Sampedro’s final years, during which he was living with extended family and refused to leave his bed. Sampedro publishes his bestselling memoirs and engages in a “life is a right, not an obligation” legal battle and the very public end of it all in 1998.Directed by Alejandro Amenábar (“The Others”), the film is a marvel of visual mastery. Cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe photographs the breathtaking Spanish landscapes with grandeur, including the stunning sequences that follow Sampedro along his psychological escapes and the recurring flashbacks that take an unflinching look at the day of his accident. Amenábar, working from his own screenplay with Mateo Gil, considers every character beyond his or her mere function in the plot and emphasizes the humor and genius of Sampedro rather than his depression and internal conflicts. Some moments of the screenplay don’t hold together as well as they perhaps should (his relationships with the aforementioned women often seem shapeless and distant), and the humor, though warm and genuine, often becomes so heavy that it undermines the film’s dramatic edge. But these problems are overshadowed by Amenábar’s technical prowess, similar to the situation with his underwhelming but atmospherically effective chiller “The Others.” In addition to providing the film’s superb score, he handles extremely complex material with an inclusive, complete feel, a rare feat among biopics. Beyond the efforts of the production, the always outstanding Bardem executes yet another astounding performance as Sampedro, aided by makeup effects that earned the film an additional Oscar nomination. He injects an emotional life into his medium that no production team, even one this skilled, could hope to match. As in his acclaimed turn as famed Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas in 2000’s intimate “Before Night Falls,” he takes the life of a man living under circumstances that most viewers can’t relate to and breaks down the emotional boundaries as few other actors can. Among the supporting players, Rueda and Dueñas shine as Sampedro’s late-life loves. Receiving much less but equally deserved recognition are those portraying his family, most notably Mabel Rivera and Tamar Novas as his sister-in-law and nephew. Most remarkably, the film is neither downbeat nor depressing, but rather strangely uplifting. It is the story of a man who wants to die, yes, but that is the least notable thing about him. Ramón Sampedro was a man with a sharp eye and an even sharper wit, a writer and poet who embodied the human spirit. The movie is a stirring testament to him, not to his beliefs or decisions. It may end with a death, but as this film and a handful of others have shown in the past, sometimes there couldn’t be a happier ending.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars