The rumors are true: After the one-two-three punch of Tesis, Open Your Eyes, and The Others, Alejandro Amenábar has gone completely out of his mind. Based on the true story of Ramón Sampedro, a quadriplegic who spent almost 30 years fighting for the right to end his life with dignity, this inexplicably lauded movie-of-the-week has none of the unnerving visual intensity of Amenábar’s previous features. Except for an over-the-top trip to a Spanish court and numerous flights of fancy to the beach where he became a cripple, Javier Bardem’s Ramón is more or less confined to a single room for the entirety of the film, and yet there isn’t an iota of pent-up anxiety and claustrophobia to Amenábar’s visuals. If the director felt his signature neo-gothic aesthetic might betray Ramón’s life, his ambivalence shows.
The The Sea Inside begs comparisons to two far superior films: Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake and Tim Robbins’s Dead Man Walking. Both are “issue films,” but they’re hardly as trite, single-minded, or preachy as The Sea Inside. In Dead Man Walking, Robbins blurs the lines between right and wrong and successfully taps into the emotional and moral essence of an ongoing problem with the American judicial system. In Vera Drake, Imelda Staunton’s titular character is engaged in a similar right-to-choose struggle as Bardem’s Ramón, except she’s considerably more complex. Considerate but wildly naïve, Vera Drake is an all-too-human victim—like Sean Penn’s death row inmate—of a callous moral and political regime. Unlike those two films, the schematic Sea Inside lacks cultural perspective.
According to the film’s press notes, several characters—namely Julia (Belén Rueda), the attorney in charge of Ramón’s right-to-die campaign, and Javi (Tamar Novas), the man’s nephew—are composites of real life people, creative liberties that clearly show. Both Julia and Rosa (Lola Dueñas)—a local woman who wants Ramón to embrace life, are gimmicky pawns in a carefully charted melodrama (indeed, you can almost trace on the screen the character trajectories the women make throughout the film). Hired because she’s also suffering from a degenerative disease and as such understands Ramón’s pain, Julia seems to exist only to provide Ramón with one of two questionable love interests and help pump up the story’s cheese factor: When she faints and falls down the stairs, Ramón is naturally unable to save her. Is this trite scenario aimed at the anti-euthanasia crowd? Either way, great filmmakers don’t have to try this hard to appeal to our emotions.
As wonderful as he is here, Bardem is but a mouthpiece for the film’s pro-euthanasia agenda, which does most of the thinking for the audience. A no-brainer in more ways than one, the film is both recklessly melodramatic and shamelessly reductive: In order to heighten the heartbreak of Ramón’s final familial farewell, Javi chases after the van that takes his uncle away from the house (only in the movies!); even worse, Amenábar casually suggests that Ramón’s swimming accident in his twenties happened because the playboy was checking out a chick in a bikini before diving into the shallow water below his feet. The film is “uplifting”: Ramón cracks funny jokes. The film is “sexy”: Though he can’t feel anything between his legs, he still scores with the ladies. The film is “intelligent”: Someone says “rhetoric” and “euphemism” in the same sentence! In short, The Sea Inside is a four-hankie salute to the Oscar gods!