As well-intended melodramas about the sick and their suffering go, "The Sea Inside" is a noble work of social-minded purpose. Directed and co-written by the young Spaniard Alejandro Amenabar, the film recounts the dilemma of Ramon Sampedro, a quadriplegic who spent years battling the Catholic Church and Spanish courts for the right to die. You want the movie to stir your soul, push your intellect, or at the very least, break your heart. But it's such a repetitive and thinly constructed piece of filmmaking that the scope and complexity of Sampedro's case are turned to porridge.
When he was 26 years old, Sampedro dove from a cliff into shallow water and hit his head. The accident left him paralyzed, bedridden for 29 years, and, as the decades fell away, deeply depressed yet inspirationally upbeat about his struggle to die on his own terms.
Sampedro spent the rest of his days in the Galicia region of northern Spain, where he was cared for by his older brother's family on their farm until he moved in with the woman who eventually made it possible for him to end his life. In this fictionalized account, the woman is a single mother who, as played by Lola Duenas, is blubbering and pathetic and nursing a crush on Sampedro, who's generous enough to welcome her into his life.
"The Sea Inside" focuses on Sampedro's becalmed, almost beatific dignity. And as embodied by Javier Bardem, it's hard to imagine dignity receiving a more humble advertisement. Bardem has been aged about 20 years, his oily black mane gone beneath a shorn gray hairpiece that does make the actor look amazingly like Sampedro. Bardem even wears Sampedro's signature turtleneck and speaks in gruff Galician.
A third of "The Sea Inside" is devoted to Julia (Belen Rueda), a lawyer who helps Sampedro publish one of his books. Julia is miserable with illness, too, and it's this mutual displeasure with what's become of their lives that should give their bond power: They're so full of life that to live without sensation or in ceaseless pain is, for them, dehumanizing. But one of the movie's shortcomings is its failure to dramatize that or any other relationship.
Amenabar takes our emotional investment for granted without earning our tears. Instead of developing the relationship between Ramon and his angry brother, Jose (Celso Bugallo), or his taciturn father (Joan Dalmau), Amenabar swaddles us with romantic and fantastic images. He's made a melodrama without the temperament or the patience necessary to shake us up.
The ingredients are there (the imminent death, the tearful goodbye), but Amenabar doesn't really use them to his advantage. On at least three occasions, time is collapsed into tidy montages, and whenever things might get too tough to take we get fond flashbacks to a younger, fitter Sampedro.
Like the version of J.M. Barrie's life that "Finding Neverland" gives us, "The Sea Inside" removes a lot of thorns to dote on the rose. Mike Leigh's abortion drama, "Vera Drake," is a perfect example of how to handle a controversial topic with a decorum that never compromises its integrity.
This is Amenabar's fourth feature, and his first since 2000's Nicole Kidman haunted-house sleeper "The Others." My complaint then -- that Amenabar is too cold and gimmicky a filmmaker to get to you emotionally -- holds here.
He substitutes visual tricks for rousing religious or moral discourse. Instead of a meaningful consideration of Sampedro's plight, we get Spielbergian camera rides wherein we're sent soaring over postcard-worthy vistas courtesy of Sampedro's wishful thinking. (It's as bogus a moment as when, in "Finding Neverland," the boys are imagined to go sailing magically out the bedroom window into the blue night yonder.) In "The Sea Inside," these flights make you wonder less about Sampedro's dream of being free of his body than about the morality of making his wish to die feel like a theme park ride.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.