Consider it poetic justice that Oscar winner The Sea Inside is opening in Orlando weeks after the similarly themed Million Dollar Baby brought talk-radio moralists across the country to an outraged froth. Not only does Sea dissect the subject of euthanasia with substantially more care and precision than Eastwood's absurdly overregarded soap, but, in scene after scene, it plays like a direct rebuttal to the hysterical censure that film engendered. Had Baby depicted mercy killing with even half the maturity and equipoise managed by filmmaker Alejandro Amenábar (Open Your Eyes, The Others), the Limbaughs and Medveds of this world might have felt far less leeway to open their traps.
Where Baby used the loss of mobility as a mere prop for hankie-flick histrionics, Sea based on the true-life tale of quadriplegic Ramón Sampedro gives its afflicted central character the dignity of depth. Life might be damnably simple for Sampedro (Javier Bardem), who, 26 years after a debilitating diving accident, spends his days and nights lying in bed and accepting the ministrations of his caregiving relations. And there's just as much simplicity to his heart's one remaining desire: to be allowed a swift and legal exit from an existence he no longer considers a life at all. But the one-dimensionality of Sampedro's situation is all on the surface: Inside, he's a tumult of complicated emotions feelings that run as deep and turbulent as the sea that claimed his freedom but still calls to him in his dreams.
The movie cements Sampedro's complexity by making us see him through the eyes of concerned parties with very different opinions of his death wish. Some, like good friend Gené (Clara Segura) a member of the group Death With Dignity grasp the hopelessness of his station and want to help him remove himself from this mortal coil. Others, like Sampedro's brother, José (Celso Bugallo), can't get past their own assessment of suicide as a selfish, sinful waste.
Each of these opposing viewpoints lives in a woman who comes to love Sampedro: Lawyer Julia (Belén Rueda) agrees to represent him in his pursuit of a final peace that's been denied him by the Spanish government; her own experience as the victim of a degenerative disease draws her closer to him than either would have imagined. At roughly the same time, a single mother and part-time DJ named Rosa (Lola Dueñas) makes Sampedro the target of her unsolicited optimism, arriving at his seaside abode determined to convince him that life is worth living. Needless to say, the message doesn't go over too well.
The love triangle that ensues is almost a caricature of Latin machismo even when dead from the neck down, our pal Ramón can get the girls, nudge, nudge. But any irony that filmmaker Amenábar finds in Sampedro's story is still several degrees more sophisticated than the portrait we long ago absorbed via Whose Life Is It Anyway? Yes, the paralyzed can be archetypes of proud indignation and undimmed libido. They can also be intrinsically warm individuals who face the world with a crooked grin, having learned that, as Sampedro says, accepting the humiliation of your perpetual dependence entails "crying with a smile."
Bardem's performance, a true triumph of face acting, imbues the character with simultaneous impish mischief and weary resignation. The dichotomy is perfect for this all-seeing open-minded film, which cares little about pronouncing its hero's desires right or wrong. As is evidenced in a hilariously righteous debate scene between Sampedro and a wheelchair-bound priest, the issue here is not right but rights the right to choose one's destiny and the right of others to judge that choice. Framing that debate with dexterity and heart, The Sea Inside all but dares us to cast the first stone.