The problem, which glares at the beginning but dims as the film earns our trust, is its made-for-TV sentimentality. Even before we know (and love) Sampedro, the movie swells with import, urging us to feel the tragedy of his plight. That's a shame, because it interferes with what is real and truly wrenching in Ramón's story. This kind of material does not need bolstering; a simple, straightforward approach is best.
For the sake of art, The Sea Inside (the title comes from one of Sampedro's poems) takes some liberties with its hero's life, in two cases collapsing several characters into one. The first of these is Julia (the remarkable Belén Rueda), a lawyer who arrives at Sampedro's rural Galician homestead determined to help him win the right to die. Her interest is personal: She suffers from a degenerative disease known as CADASIL. The illness causes periodic strokes, and she faces the demise not merely of her body but also of her mind. The character is a composite of several women who became close to Ramón, and Rueda captures multitudes. Married and well-loved, Julia doesn't intend to develop a personal connection with her client. When she does, the agony of push-pull is plain on her face.
Julia's counterpart is Rosa (Lola Dueñas), a local woman who seeks Sampedro's counsel after watching his plea for death on television. Initially she comes to save him, but it is she who needs rescue, as he quickly determines. The two develop a lopsided friendship. Rosa is a lively spirit, but her need is exhausting: At times, one wishes she would leave the poor man alone.
Javier Bardem, unforgettable as Reinaldo Arenas in 2000's Before Night Falls, delivers another striking performance. His Sampedro is blessed with wicked intelligence and, somehow, with open-hearted compassion even as he remains steadfast in his wish to die. He's darkly bitter, but not for others; for them he has hope. Though Ramón has no interest in life, the movie is quick to show us, he inspires others to live it and love it. This drips with sentiment, but it appears to have been true, and Bardem lets it be. He never mocks Sampedro but instead inhabits him with soulful largesse.
It helps that Sampedro is cradled in love. His principal caretaker, sister-in-law Manuela (Mabel Rivera), is kindness incarnate. His father (Joan Dalmau), who totters a bit with age, possesses a cutting and sympathetic lucidity when it comes to his son. And nephew Javi (Tamar Novas) is just the kind of loping adolescent who brings life to any room. (Javi is the other composite character, standing in for all of Sampedro's nephews and nieces.) Even Ramón's older brother, José (Celso Bugallo), who vehemently objects to suicide, does so out of passionate love for his brother, to whose care he has dedicated his family and his home. They are a happy family, and Ramón is their beating heart, even as he wishes for death.
Cue the violins -- and indeed, they have been cued. Director Amenábar also scored the film, which was not a great idea. The music is pretty, but it's overused, especially toward the beginning. (The script falters, too. At one point, Ramon says to a fleeing Rosa: "That's right. Run. Since you can.") Once the film begins to relax and trust its story, though, it becomes more real. It still slips into sentiment now and then, but with a baseline of solid rock.