Based on the chastened life and hastened death of Spanish euthanasia activist Ramón Sampedro, the painterly biopic The Sea Inside finds art-house hunk Javier Bardem gazing Oscar-ward. Aged to a balding 55, the 35-year-old Bardem makes a convincing quadriplegic, rolling his eyes and pursing his lips with the sort of exaggeration that a once virile sensualist might employ if that’s all he had to work with.
Unfortunately, Bardem is confined by more than Ramón’s paralysis. He also must work within the limits of a partially numbed script that substitutes for insightful character study lines like “She’s a stubborn one!” When frail, crutch-limping lawyer Julia (a beautiful and joyless Belén Rueda) takes the case, we know it’s more than just a job to her because she declares, “You know, this is more than just a job to me.” Flirtation between Julia and her client, which tumbles into genius-at-work montage after she reads a box of Ramón’s poems, is thankfully shaken up by the introduction of Rosa (Lola Dueñas), an unemployed factory worker and single mother who seeks friendship with Ramón after he is interviewed on TV. Dueñas alleviates the tidy miserablism by patterning her performance on Giulietta Masina’s indelible La Strada turn, even walking with a hint of clownish waddle.
Bardem won the best-actor award in Venice. But one wonders what further richness fellow Venice winner Mike Leigh (Best Picture for Vera Drake) might have culled from this multi-layered domestic conundrum. Here, Sampedro’s family members are mostly straw people—his crab-apple brother fumes at the suggestion of suicide in his home, his doddering dad spaces out when not designing helpful contraptions like Ramón’s mouth-controlled writing device, and a dutiful nephew finally, if dimly, accepts his uncle’s love. Mabel Rivera, who plays Ramón’s sister-in-law caregiver Manuela, does conjure some chafed, Leigh-worthy resilience. As for the courtroom battles that made Sampedro famous in Spain, they barely register here. For better or worse, director Alejandro Amenábar sidesteps legal polemics, but oddly doesn’t aim for unflinching realism either, only hinting at the messy regimens that would underscore Ramón’s claims of his condition’s indignity.
The Sea Inside‘s opening voice-over—a Sampedro poem about color, texture, and light—calls justified attention to the gliding camera work of cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, who added grace to Almodóvar’s smooth Talk to Her. And indeed, when we’re not forcibly trained on Bardem or distracted by Dueñas, it’s the camera’s perspective that is most compelling. Ramón’s fantasies of mobility involve thrilling defenestration and flight across the countryside. In these moments, and during underwater flashbacks to the tragic ocean dive that snapped dashing young Ramón’s neck, we’re reminded of Aguirresarobe’s hand in achieving the otherworldly atmospherics of Amenábar’s The Others. Additional stylized touches, like trapping characters in the same clothing over months and years, make us wish the director had indulged even more of his surrealist impulses.