The Sea Inside, the new right-to-die drama from Spanish director Alejandro Amenábar (The Others), is a flawed film worth seeing. Based on Letters from Hell, a book by quadriplegic Ramón Sampedro about his thirty-year quest to kill himself, the movie favors the emotional over the legal, foregrounding Sampedro’s relationships with his family and with the various women who came to see him, rather than his up-and-down struggle with the Spanish courts. It’s a wise choice, and it pays off handsomely, with rich characters and interactions throughout.
The problem, which glares at the beginning and then tapers as the film earns our trust, is a made-for-TV sentimentality. Even before we know (and love) Sampedro, the movie swells with import, urging us to feel the tragedy of his plight. That’s a shame, as it interferes with what is real, and truly wrenching, in Ramón’s story. This kind of material does not need bolstering; a simple, straightforward approach is best.
For the sake of art, The Sea Inside (the title comes from one of Sampedro’s poems) takes some liberties with its hero’s life, in two cases collapsing several characters into one. The first of these is Julia (the remarkable Belén Rueda), a lawyer who arrives at Sampedro’s rural Galician homestead determined to help him win the right to die. Her interest is personal: She suffers from a degenerative disease which causes periodic strokes, and faces the demise not merely of her body but also of her mind. The character is a composite of several women who became close to Ramón, and Rueda is perfect at capturing multitudes. Married and well loved, Julia doesn’t intend to develop a personal connection with her client. When she does, there is the agony of push-pull written all over her face.
Julia’s counterpart is Rosa (Lola Dueñas), a local woman who seeks Sampedro’s counsel after watching his plea for death on television. Initially, she comes to save him, but it is she who needs rescue, as he quickly determines. The two develop a lopsided friendship, in which Sampedro delivers a kind of calming love that Rosa drinks for sustenance. Rosa is a lively spirit, but her need is exhausting: At times, one wishes she would leave the poor man alone. It’s only toward the end, when Rosa awakens to Sampedro’s needs, that things get interesting.
It isn’t easy to watch these women interact with Sampedro. There he is, lying where he has lain for nearly thirty years, enduring a hell which few have known and pleading, quietly, for mercy — for a modicum of assistance to his suicide. (If even a single arm could move, one senses, he would have long since done the deed.) And there the women come, toting their baskets of need in the guise of support, never giving him what he truly wants. (Though isn’t it the irony of the injured and sick that it is so often they who give to others?) Ultimately, of course, Sampedro is enriched by these relationships, but does he have a choice? Of course, he could tell them to leave, but he is not that kind of man.
Javier Bardem, who did an unforgettable Reinaldo Arenas in 2000’s Before Night Falls, delivers another striking performance. (Look for him at the Oscars.) His Sampedro is blessed with wicked intelligence and, somehow, with open-hearted compassion even as he remains steadfast in his wish to die. He’s darkly bitter, but not for others; for them he has hope. The movie is quick to show us that, though Ramón has no interest in life, he inspires others to live it and love it. This drips with sentiment, but it appears to have been true, and Bardem lets it be. He never mocks, but instead inhabits Sampedro with a true largesse of soul.
It helps that Sampedro is cradled in love. His principal caretaker, sister-in-law Manuela (Mabel Rivera), is kindness incarnate. His father (Joan Dalmau), who totters a bit with age, possesses a cutting and sympathetic lucidity when it comes to his son. And nephew Javi (Tamar Novas) is just the kind of loping adolescent who brings life to any room. (Javi is the second composite character, standing in for all of Sampedro’s nephews and nieces.) Even Ramón’s older brother José (Celso Bugallo), who objects to suicide with an iron fist, does so out of passionate love for his brother, to whose care he has dedicated his family and his home. They are a happy family, and Ramón is their beating heart, even as he wishes for death.
Cue the violins — and indeed, they have been cued. Director Amenábar also scored the film, which was not a great idea. The music is pretty, but it’s overused, especially toward the beginning. We can’t brook symphonic swells when we have only just met our protagonist: The feelings the movie is asking us to have simply aren’t there. (The script falters, too, as when Ramon says to a fleeing Rosa: “That’s right. Run. Since you can.”) However, once the film begins to relax, and trust its story, it becomes more real. It still slips into sentiment now and then, but with a baseline of solid rock. At that point, it’s well worth watching.