Our first glimpse of dashing Javier Bardem as Ramón comes as a shock. Ramón's new, pro-bono lawyer Julia (Belén Rueda) arrives at the converted farmhouse where he lives, and when we finally see Ramón's face, the actor proves nearly unrecognizable. It's as if decades in bed have left him bald, sallow and flabby, yet still undeniably charismatic. In brief glimpses of the youthful diving accident that left Ramón paralyzed, Bardem looks muscular and vital enough to make a credible Tarzan, adding to the poignance that Ramón now can feel nothing below his neck.
Rather than rely on flashbacks or courtroom theatrics, The Sea Inside finds drama in the emotional dynamics between Ramón and the others in his life: He's like the sun around which everyone else orbits. He shares a house with supportive relatives who love him too much to want him dead, yet they strive to respect his suicidal aspirations. He enjoys a surrogate family of activists and well-wishers like Rosa (Lola Duenas), a needy single mom whose puppyish devotion to Ramón gives her own life meaning.
Ramón finds a special kinship with Julia, an attorney who suffers a degenerative disease. At first, she refuses to surrender to her illness and embraces life, in contrast to Ramón's resolve to win legal permission to kill himself. As Julia's condition worsens, though, her plight serves to reinforce Ramón's fight for the freedom to choose one's own death.
At times The Sea Inside reverses our natural sympathies. Some of the film's liveliest moments depict a feud between Ramón and a bullying quadriplegic priest (José Maria Pou) who speaks out for disability rights. Because Ramon's farmhouse is not wheelchair accessible, the pair end up arguing the right-to-death themes up and down a flight of stairs. The Sea Inside intriguingly makes a "bad guy" out of a paralyzed man of the cloth trying to save the life of its hero.
The Sea Inside avoids the easy pathos of dwelling on Ramón's inability to do the simplest tasks for himself, with the exception of an anguished sequence in which he can't come to Julia's aid after she collapses down a flight of stairs. But mostly the film demonstrates that Ramón has everything going for him. A strong, passionate individual surrounded with love, he publishes a book, finds two opportunities for romance and can escape into his imagination in soaring, vividly photographed fantasy scenes.
Why Ramón wants to extinguish his life becomes something of a mystery, even to him. He breaks down in tears one night over his death wish, but never renounces it. Ramón offers rhetoric, such as the motto, "Life is a right, not an obligation," but only Bardem's performance makes us feel we understand him. There's such a sadness in Bardem's crooked smile and frustrated longing in his eyes, we know in our guts that Ramón's existence is intolerable to him.
At times director/co-writer Alejandro Amenbar succumbs to TV-movie clichés, scoring pro-euthanasia points too overtly and relying on a conventionally "uplifting," Irish-influenced musical score (that Amenbar composed himself). Fortunately, The Sea Inside never loses sight of the emotional repercussions of the euthanasia issue as it builds to a conclusion in which tragedy cannot be separated from triumph.