FINE LINE/Color/2.35/Dolby Digital, DTS & SDDS/125 Mins./Rated PG-13

Cast: Javier Bardem, Belén Rueda, Lola Dueñas, Mabel Rivera, Celso Bugallo, Clara Segura, Joan Dalmau, Alberto Jiménez. Tamar Novas, José María Pou, Francesc Garrido.
Credits: Directed and edited by Alejandro Amenábar. Written by Amenábar, Mateo Gil. Produced by Fernando Bovaira, Amenábar. Director of photography: Javier Aguirresarobe. Production designer: Benjamín Fernández. Music by Amenábar, Carlos Nunez. Costume designer: Sonia Grande. A Sogepaq presentation of a Sogecine and Himenoptero production, with participation of TVE and Canal Plus. In Spanish with English subtitles.

Here's a film that looks back at the true story of a Spanish quadriplegic, a former sailor who is so despairing of his extreme confinement over several decades, he fights—even goes to court—for the right to die. Add to this challenging plot the fact that The Sea Inside also gives us another key character who has an incurable, degenerative disease. And let's not forget the subtitles and a two-hour-plus running time. Hello, marketing challenge.

Not quite. Alejandro Amenábar's (The Others) stunning drama The Sea Inside delivers what many will consider Spanish star Javier Bardem's best screen performance, and the production itself is so rich in authentic emotional life and breathtaking visuals, word of mouth and positive reviews should carry the (pay) day.

Amenábar and his co-writer Mateo Gil based their script on the life and writings of Ramón Sampedro, who ended his life in the late 1990s after 28 years as a quadriplegic.

As the film makes clear, Ramón (Bardem) had been a robust figure, a seaman from northern Spain who had traveled the world and enjoyed life until a diving accident rendered him paralyzed from the neck down. Ramón is left at the mercy of his family, a mixed bag of caretakers that includes insensitive brother José (Celso Bugallo) and José's stoic wife Manuela (Mabel Rivera), who tends to Ramón with more fastidiousness than warmth. At least their son Javi (Tamar Novas) brings some pleasure to Ramón, who treats him like his own child.

But it is people beyond family who truly connect with Ramón, although not one of them can bring to him a reason to live. Rather, they facilitate what Ramón wants more than anything and what Spain’s legal system denies him—the right to die. Most importantly, there is lawyer Julia (Spanish television star Belén Rueda, making her big screen debut), who helps Ramón prepare his case for assisted suicide. The two form a strong bond, but their deep emotional connection is strained when Ramón learns that Julia is dealing with an incurable degenerative disease.

The emotionally unstable Rosa (Lola Dueñas), a local radio personality with her own troubles who becomes a kind of benign stalker, is drawn to Ramón with a mission to save him from ending his life. But he wisely sees more self-interest than selflessness in Rosa’s narrowly focused activism on his behalf.

Ramón ultimately gets his day in court, a development that director Amenábar could have milked for some sustained suspense. But this time out, that’s not where the filmmaker’s interests lie. Rather, it’s the turmoil inside his hero, so poignantly expressed by his star, that gives the film its unexpected power—and title.

Under Amenábar’s direction and with Javier Aguirresarobe’s magnificent cinematography, The Sea Inside is also a visual tour de force that manages to externalize Ramón’s inner feelings—his torment, longings, fantasies and memories. It's this vast, varied, churning, all-powerful “sea inside” the man that drives him to end his life.

A kind of Whose Life Is It Anyway? for today’s art-house audience, The Sea Inside, in spite of its downbeat subject, should see upbeat numbers, thanks to Bardem’s startling performance, fine acting in all supporting roles, great production values meshing perfectly with the story, and Amenábar’s wise, assured direction. Young and known mostly for genre films, he should continue—as The Sea Inside most convincingly suggests—to surprise with choices made outside the box.