Dir: Alejandro Amenabar.Spain. 2004. 127mins.

Though Alejandro Amenabar's new film screened only athird of the way into the Venice festival, the gut feeling after the earlypress screening on the Lido was that we had just been watching the Leone D'Oro.Still only 32, Amenabar proves with this moving study of a quadraplegic man whois determined to put an end to his life that he has the emotional and moralrange, if not the visual flamboyance, of Pedro Almodovar.

Hingingon a standout performance from Javier Bardem - who is, by necessity, forcedinto acting only from the neck up - The Sea Inside manages to make alife-enhancing film out of three huge narrative downers: death, paralysis andeuthanasia. Such themes still require a certain resilience from audiences, andAmenabar may lose some of the thriller fanbase he built up with The Othersand Abre Los Ojos, the source of the Tom Cruise remake Vanilla Sky.

Butany losses on this front should be made up for on international markets by thestrong critical and media interest this film will generate - and by amore-than-likely Oscar nod for Bardem, if only to reward him for the five hoursof make up he had to endure each morning.

Thefilm is based on the true story of Ramon Sampedro, a sailor from Galicia, Spain'srainswept north-western corner. At the age of 25, Sampedro was paralysed fromthe neck down when he miscalculated while diving off rocks at the beach nearhis home. Confined to bed in his family's farmhouse, Sampedro began a longlegal battle for the right to die - something he was unable to do for himself.

Thecase received plenty of media attention; but under Spanish law, the courtscould not approve Sampedro's request to be allowed to commit "assisted"suicide. Finally, in 1998, after publishing a book of his poems, Sampedrokilled himself with the help of a group of friends and sympathisers - with thewhole process divided up among the group in such a way that no one person couldbe accused of manslaughter.

Amenabarand fellow scriptwriter Mateo Gil allowed themselves plenty of creative licencein adapting Sampedro's ordeal for the screen, distilling the harem ofwomen-with-a-mission that apparently clustered around the quadriplegic in hisfinal "celebrity" years into two contrasting characters, lawyer Julia (BelenRueda) - who herself suffers from a wasting disease - and proletarianmother-of-two Rosa (Lola Duenas). As in late-period Almodovar, there is anundertow of melodrama in such narrative tropes - something that is ironicallyalluded to in the end credits, where the actors are presented in TV soaptalking-head insets.

Itis, above all, Ramon/Bardem - both the scripted character and the actor - whosaves the film from any touch of schmaltz, through his resilience, obstinacy,and wide-awake refusal to be duped by sentiment, flattery or hype. When Juliatells him, with just a touch of condescension, that his poems are good enoughto publish, he replies "Of course! They publish anything nowadays".

Throughout,the bald and bedridden Bardem, who answers the phone by pulling on a ring withhis teeth and writes with a wooden mouth-held pointer, maintains the stubbornsmile of a man who is living through daily torment but refuses to show it. Andthis vein of humour runs through the film too, whether it be in Ramon's verbalsparring match with an equally quadriplegic anti-euthanasia priest or in hiscomment, at a certain point, that he might as well try to smoke himself todeath.

TheSea Insideis the first of Amenabar's films to be shot in scope - perhaps an odd choicefor a movie set largely in a bedroom; but in fact the widescreen format neverseems redundant, and the breadth of field acts as a kind of metaphor forRamon's perambulatory fantasy life - which is summed up in an exhilaratingdream flight over the hills to the sea.

Productiondesign stresses the drab greys, greens and blues of Ramon's bedroom against thesun-soaked territory of dream and memory. Amenabar's original score for thefilm (the man is depressingly multi-talented) builds from sombre orchestralchords to a more lilting, folk-influenced Galician dance towards the end -getting lighter, paradoxically, as the film approaches its cathartic, movingfinale.

Prodcos: Sogecine Himenoptero, UGCImages, Eyescreen
Int'l sales:
FernandoBovaira, Alejandro Amenabar
AlejandroAmenabar, Mateo Gil
Prod des:
Benjamin Fernandez
Main cast:
Javier Bardem, Belen Rueda, Lola Duenas, Mabel Rivera, Celso Bugallo,Clara Segura