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For someone who spent nearly 30 years in bed, Ramón Sampedro had a pretty eventful life. So eventful, in fact, that to make a coherent film chronicling even his last few years would involve some serious pruning. Unfortunately, Alejandro Amenábar’s lovely The Sea Inside remains a bit bushy, failing to exercise restraint in its oft-repeated message: “Life is a right, not an obligation.” Galician Ramón (Javier Bardem), a ship’s mechanic in his youth, broke his neck after a dive into the ocean and became a quadriplegic in his mid-20s. When Amenábar’s drama catches up with him, Ramón is 55, living in his brother’s farmhouse and cared for by his sister-in-law, Manuela (a warmly efficient Mabel Rivera). Despite having invented contraptions that allow him to write and answer the phone with his mouth, he’s refused a wheelchair, choosing his bed over limited mobility. And despite his lively spirit and gift for language—Amenábar was inspired by Sampedro’s book, Letters From Hell—he’s spent half his existence battling to legally end it. As the mostly motionless Ramón, Bardem manages an incredible range of expression, from the Cheshire grin of a born flirt to the curled-in blankness of a man who’s mellower than he wants to be to the mask of terror that materializes in his sleep. If only the rest of the movie lived up to Bardem’s fine work, or to Javier Aguirresarobe’s striking cinematography, whose close-up textures convey the forced intimacy of Ramón’s encounters. Amenábar relies on a few ham-handed montages to grow relationships, and though he and co-scripter Mateo Gil must have tried mightily to keep the legal details to a minimum, there is still enough of a court-case flavor to lend a made-for-cable messiness to the film’s end. And atop all of this is a love story: The candidates are single mother Rosa (a feisty Lola Dueñas), who comes to depend on Ramón’s kindness, and Julia (Spanish TV star Belén Rueda, mesmerizing in her first film role), a crippled lawyer working on his case. It becomes clear, however, that Manuela is right when she states that Ramón’s heart belongs to la muerta. Ultimately, so does the movie; the director would have done better to elevate the characters’ lives rather than the cause.

—Anne Marson