One can imagine the sudsy shlockfest that “The Sea Inside” might have been in other hands: a mawkish affair centered around not one disability but — wait for it — two.
Instead, as directed by the Chilean-born Spaniard Alejandro Amenabar, “Mar adentro” (as the film is known in Spanish) earns its tears honestly. For one thing, it never sentimentalizes the real-life story of Ramon Sampedro, the Spanish quadriplegic who fought for — and, early in 1998, finally achieved — the right to die, prompting a debate about euthanasia that has international repercussions to this day.
And for a film preoccupied with death, Amenabar’s camera insists on life, whether swooping through and out the bedridden Ramon’s window in an adrenaline rush or finding the prickly humor, wit and romance in a tale that could have turned very maudlin.
“If you were told about the storyline, you could think this was going to be like one of these TV movies,” notes Amenabar, a slight, sweet-natured man who looks considerably younger than his 32 years. “That was one of the questions we asked ourselves: how were we going to avoid that? You could think that someone with a disability going to court — yes, that reminds you of some TV movie. But at the same time, the film was talking about life and death and love, which felt to me like a universal theme: even a transcendental subject.” (One of the numerous women in Ramon’s orbit — actress Belen Rueda’s Julia — is herself dying from a degenerative disease.)
Amenabar elaborates on the challenges posed by material that is enlivened, as well, by Javier Bardem’s astute and unself-pitying performance as Ramon.
“The story of this man who refused to move from his bed for 20 years: How were we going to be able to let the audience go out of the room because we didn’t want to write a play?” says the helmer. “We knew it had to be a film with locations and what we called windows for the audience, though not necessarily a literal window; most of the time, they’re just emotional windows.”
Amenabar’s first movie since Nicole Kidman starrer “The Others” has received high praise and was chosen by Spain as its foreign-lingo Oscar entry. Fellow countryman and filmmaker Pedro Almodovar — whose film, “Bad Education,” will be vying for other categories in the wake of Spain’s decision — says: “Alejandro is my friend, and it would be totally marvelous if we could both be nominated for an Oscar; it would be such a historic event.”