After 26 years as a quadriplegic -- living with his caretaker family, inventing devices that allow him to write and answer the phone, taking imaginary flights out his window and over the countryside to his beloved ocean -- Ramón Sampedro finally decided he'd had enough of his life.
And so he contacted a Spanish grass-roots group that believed in euthanasia, and they contacted an attorney who took his case. (His belief, in a phrase: "Life is a right, not an obligation.") Two years later, when the courts applied the law and refused to help him die, Ramón (Javier Bardem), with the help of a few friends, took matters into his own lifeless hands.
In The Sea Inside, the young Chilean director Alejandro Amenábar tells Ramón's true story largely without polemic or sentiment, choosing instead to present slices of his last few years of life, all of it for the most part evenly weighed, in tone and emotion, right up to assisted suicide. The result is a familiar movie done in a familiar way, satisfying in small part but never very grand or provocative.
To keep us largely in the moment, Amenábar makes spare use of flashbacks. We see the diving accident that crippled Ramón, and we watch him rise from bed (in his mind) and soar over the mountains and valleys of Galicia, where he lives with his brother (who's angry at his desire to die), sister-in-law (who's quietly supportive), aging father (unsupportive at first) and teen-age nephew (fond of his uncle, and so neutral about his death).
Ramón spends his time in bed writing poetry and turning his vivacious youth as a merchant seaman into an imagined present and future (he eschews looking back). He's not depressed -- in fact, quite the opposite: He's tranquil and good-natured most of the time. A local woman who hears about his case befriends him, at first to change his mind, and then on his own terms. His lawyer, herself slowly losing mobility from a degenerative illness, falls in love with him, and she offers to take his life before taking her own. The by-the-book Catholic Church, of course, is no help: When Ramón debates his right to die with a sanguine quadriplegic priest, the discussion ends in the requisite draw.
In his earlier films, like the ghost story The Others, and the Spanish-language science fiction Open Your Eyes (remade as Vanilla Sky), Amenábar showed a predilection for the ethereal, which in those cases also involved the supernatural. With The Sea Inside, he pursues this interest in a setting so intently realistic that it turns out to be a bit bland. It's hard not to draw people into a drama about death, the only human experience about which no one has written an autobiography. So I wonder if the better story might not have been a more palpable one about how Ramón tolerated his corporeal imprisonment for 26 years, and why he finally decided to stop. In Spanish, with subtitles.