Almost unbearably poignant tour de force about a quadriplegic's desire to die with dignity, Alejandro Amenabar's fourth feature is a startling departure from the stylish genre fare of his first three movies. Buoyed by a diamond-plated script, fine production values and a majestic neck-up performance by Javier Bardem, "Sea" is a dramatic triumph.

An absorbing and almost unbearably poignant tour de force about a quadriplegic’s desire to die with dignity, Alejandro Amenabar’s powerful fourth feature, “The Sea Inside,” is a startling departure from the stylish genre fare of his first three movies. Buoyed by a diamond-plated script that tackles the subject with intelligence and grace, fine production values and a majestic neck-up performance by Javier Bardem, “Sea” is a dramatic triumph. North American and worldwide English-language rights were picked up in July by Fine Line, which looks to release pic Stateside later this year.

Though unlikely to carry the 32-year-old helmer’s singular cinematic gift to as wide public than did his English-language “The Others,” film will raise ethical debates and touch universal emotions in a range of territories.

Film is based on the true story of Spanish quadriplegic Ramon Sampedro. In 1998, Sampedro, having grown tired of the protracted legal battle to give him the right to an assisted suicide, had it done independently, arranging matters so that nobody would be accused of helping him. Pic takes the basic facts of the final months of Sampedro’s life, simplifying and rearranging them for dramatic purposes.

Ramon (Bardem), bedridden for nearly 30 years following a diving accident at 26, lives with his farming family in a country house in Galicia, northern Spain. There’s his silently suffering father Joaquin (Joan Dalmau); brutish brother Jose (Celso Bugallo), who’s against the idea of any assisted suicide; stoic sister-in-law Manuela (Mabel Rivera), who cares for Ramon; and Jose and Manuela’s son, Javi (Tamar Novas), to whom Ramon is a father figure.

Each of them opens up a different side of Ramon’s complex character. Also present as pic opens are Gene (Clara Segura), a member of a right-to-die organization, and her b.f., lawyer Marc (Francesc Garrido).

The arrival of lawyer Julia (Belen Rueda), to prepare the material for Ramon’s forthcoming legal case, helps to fill in his background as a sailor who traveled the world, a fine figure of a man. Ramon believes the accident should have killed him, and since then, this idea has dominated his life.

After seeing a TV interview with Ramon, emotionally confused local radio presenter Rosa (Lola Duenas), twice separated and with two children, turns up at the house to try to convince him life is worth living. He dismisses her with the comment that she’s merely a frustrated woman who has come because she’s seeking meaning in her own life.

The relationship between Sampedro and Julia, who we later learn is suffering from a degenerative disease, develops in parallel with Rosa’s affections for him. But anything approaching a standard love story is complicated by Ramon’s stated belief that the person who truly loves him will be the one who helps him to die.

The understated script, which draws freely on Sampedro’s writings, is mostly concerned with sounding out the impact of his life on the people around him. Thankfully, there is little tubthumping about the right to die. Indeed, the ethical issues are handled comically, through jokey comments by Ramon.

As the stubborn, courageous and kindly protagonist, whose bitter wisdom is the result of nearly 30 years of single-minded reflection, Bardem, who appears in most scenes, is superb. Aided by spot-on make-up by Jo Allen (who fashioned Nicole Kidman’s nose in “The Hours”), thesp brilliantly inhabits the character. Bardem’s naturalistically casual delivery, in a gentle voice heavy with a Galician accent, is the result of a semi-improvised approach used by Amenabar that feels convincing.

Supporting perfs are excellent across the board. TV actress Rueda, as the troubled Julia, and Duenas, as the dynamic, sparky Rosa, are standouts, both complex women whose values will be deeply challenged by their relationship to Ramon and who are transformed by him.

Tightly controlled editing by Amenabar makes a key contribution to the gathering emotional momentum. The richly textured lensing of Javier Aguirresarobe (“The Others”) is successful throughout, whether rendering beautiful rural locations though a variety of seasons or creating effective dream and memory sequences from Ramon’s mind. Lush orchestral score, also by the helmer, discreetly underlines mood.

The Sea Inside

Spain

Production

A Warner Sogefilms (in Spain)/Fine Line (in U.S.) release of a Sogepaq presentation of a Sogecine, Himenoptero production, with participation of TVE, Canal Plus. (International sales: Sogepaq, Madrid.) Produced by Fernando Bovaira, Alejandro Amenabar. Directed, edited by Alejandro Amenabar. Screenplay, Amenabar, Mateo Gil.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Javier Aguirresarobe; music, Amenabar; art director, Benjamin Fernandez; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS Digital/SDDS), Ricardo Steinberg; makeup, Jo Allen. Reviewed at Sogepaq screening rooms, Madrid, July 26, 2004. (In Venice Film Festival -- competing.) Running time: 125 MIN. (Spanish, Galician dialogue)

With

Ramon Sampedro - Javier Bardem Julia - Belen Rueda Rosa - Lola Duenas Manuela - Mabel Rivera Jose - Celso Bugallo Gene - Clara Segura Joaquin - Joan Dalmau German - Alberto Jimenez Javi - Tamar Novas Father Francisco - Jose Maria Pou Marc - Francesc Garrido
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