An hour or so into The Sea Inside, Alejandro Amenábar's moving biopic of paralysed Spanish poet Ramón Sampedro, the quadriplegic hero slowly pulls himself out of bed, moves across his room and dives headlong out of the window. The camera shows his point of view as the ground hurtles towards him, suddenly pulling back as he miraculously begins to soar above the countryside towards the sea. It's all a fantasy of course - a waking dream spurred by a recording of Puccini's `Nessun Dorma'. For a second, though, we get a glimpse of the imagination that must have sustained this real-life figure through those countless dark nights of the soul and the unbreakable spirit that enabled him to endure his immobile living hell.
The twist is this remarkable life-force was devoted not to making his existence more tolerable, but to ending it altogether. And it is doubly ironic that Sampedro, memorably resurrected here by Javier Bardem of Before Night Falls fame, was never more alive than in fighting for his right to die - a crusade eventually resolved in 1998 when he had his own illegal suicide videotaped in the hope it might posthumously reverse Spain's rigid anti-euthanasia laws. The Sea Inside details the minutiae of Ramón's legal struggle, but those anticipating a one-sided polemic will be pleasantly surprised, for Amenábar ensures every side of the argument is heard and debated before allowing his hero to meet his maker.
The end is never in doubt, but life goes on even when you're determined to terminate it. And though the film is anchored by Bardem's astonishing central performance, it's as much about the people who revolve around Ramón as it is about the man himself. Amenábar and co-writer Mateo Gil vividly sketch his bickering family, the conflicted human-rights lawyer who takes on his case (Belén Rueda) and the single mother who falls for him (Lola Dueñas). And though the story is rooted in authentic human tragedy, humour is never far away - nowhere more so than in a hilarious sequence where Bardem argues his position with a pro-life priest who's just as incapacitated as he is.