In Spanish writer-director Alejandro Amenabar's movies, life is a slippery thing. Reality evaporated into a dreamy blur in Amenabar's 1997 "Open Your Eyes" (remade in Hollywood as "Vanilla Sky"), and 2001's "The Others" featured the gliding, porcelain-skinned Nicole Kidman as the centerpiece of a well-crafted ghost story.
The netherworld beckons again in the director's latest picture, the Spanish-language "Mar Adentro," or "The Sea Inside." The main character craves only one thing: death. The twist this time is that it's all true, based on the long, controversial crusade of quadriplegic Ramon Sampedro to end his life "with dignity," as the campaigning parlance goes. The Spaniard fought his case in court for years; he never won legal approval, but he eventually got his wish.
Javier Bardem, as a quadriplegic, and Belen Rueda in "The Sea Inside."
(Teresa Isasi -- Fine Line Features)
Amenabar's challenge is to keep this story from being a grim march toward Sampedro's inevitable end, and he pulls it off largely because of the beatific performance of Javier Bardem. The film picks up the story when Sampedro is in his mid-fifties and has been bedridden for about a quarter of a century after a diving accident (seen in a gorgeous, jolting flashback sequence). Bardem is instantly believable as a balding, soft-fleshed figure sunk helplessly in his pillows.
The body is useless, but the mind is alive, and the spirit isn't altogether bleak. Sampedro apparently could be a charmer, and Bardem plays him with a gentle sideways smile that melts the hearts of a couple of women in this film. (Creating something of a romantic triangle is one of Amenabar's antidepressant strategies.) One of these unexpected love interests is Rosa, a blue-collar worker, single mother and part-time DJ who finds uplift in his saga -- a selfish misreading that causes the usually placid Sampedro to snap at her. Rosa is sweet but needy, traits that come perfectly clear in Lola Dueñas's deft, girlish performance.
The other woman complicating Sampedro's life is Julia, a lawyer who takes his case pro bono. (Belen Rueda is tough and lovely in the role.) Julia is mature and clear-eyed, but more to the point, she has a degenerative health condition of her own. Sampedro and Julia slowly bond over their incurable disabilities and over the manuscript he begins to write, and then Amenabar clinches the mood with the movie's single breathtaking sequence, a vertiginous airborne fantasy that speeds Sampedro toward Julia and the sea. (Amenabar, who as usual has composed his own methodical movie score, gives this moment to Puccini's "Nessun Dorma.") Whether Julia is devoted enough to assist with his suicide becomes one of the story's more pressing questions.
Not that Amenabar and co-writer Mateo Gil ever really gin up the tension. "The Sea Inside" is largely what its title suggests: placid and rather attractive on the surface, with depths you can sense but which are never fully plumbed. The film doesn't drag you through Sampedro's agonies, though surely there were many -- his memoir, after all, was titled "Letters From Hell."
Still, Bardem compels you to acknowledge, if not experience, Sampedro's despair. You concede point after point as the character debates with, say, his Catholic brother, or with a grandstanding priest; Bardem puts forth Sampedro's arguments with crisp logic and a forbearing weariness, gaining sympathy without asking for it. Writing via a stick in his mouth, working the phone by biting on strings attached to levers -- none of this pitiable ingenuity is exploited for pluck or perseverance or misery. These are the details of daily existence, and Bardem inhabits them factually. He mainly works from the neck up as a milky gray head on a pillow, and it's amazing how thoroughly he commands attention.
"The Sea Inside" is sober and tasteful, wanting nothing so much as to convince you of the lucidity of Sampedro's decision. Amenabar avoids passion and mess, but he hits his lesser mark -- plain dignity.
The Sea Inside (125 minutes, in Spanish with subtitles, at Landmark E Street and Landmark Bethesda Row) is rated PG-13 for mature themes.