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The Sea Inside

Bardem delivers stirring performance as paraplegic ready to die

Inspired by the true story of a quadriplegic from Galicia, Spain, who in 1998 brilliantly engineered his own death with a little help from his friends, The Sea Inside tells the tale of Ramon Sampedro, who has been paralyzed from the neck down in a tragic diving accident. Day after day, he lies in his bed, staring out the window, writing poetry with a pen held in his teeth, entertaining friends and family. He is genial enough, and his warm, winning smile effectively masks his misery, but Sampedro wants only one thing -- the right to die.

Javier Bardem, the Spanish actor who depicts Sampedro in the final months of his life, carries the film with a quietly affecting performance, handling this material, which could have so easily been rendered maudlin, with a deft, understated touch. In his hands, Sampedro doesn't seem to wallow in self-pity; he is merely tired of life, tired of his familiar bed, tired of a condition that has "no dignity". He longs for the day when the three feet that separate him from Julia (Belen Rueda), the attractive lawyer who falls in love with him, will no longer represent an impossible journey. And yet he knows that day will never come.

Julia, who suffers from a degenerative condition herself, is just one of Sampedro's adoring visitors. There is Rosa, a local disc jockey, and a handful of family members, including his brother, who is staunchly opposed to euthanasia. None of them can revive Sampedro's will to live, and after a time, most cease to try. His smile is too disarming, his mind, after 27 years of paralysis, too sharp and resolute. And so he waits.

Director Alejandro Amenábar (The Others), who co-wrote The Sea Inside with Mateo Gil, has created a film that doesn't endorse or condone assisted suicide. If anything, it is a film about love and passion, and a man who lives in quiet desolation because his body prevents him from expressing those emotions.

Bardem captures this character, whose peaceful determination to die is borne out of years of spiritual and physical conflict, with a performance that's powerfully moving, even as he never so much as moves a muscle. Sampedro almost cheerfully points out the futility of his struggle, demanding a life of dignity from those who would question his morbid desire. With his career-defining turn in The Sea Inside, Bardem gives him just that.

Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5