OK, it sounds like a slog — yet another movie of the Whose Life Is It Anyway? school in which a quadriplegic fights for the right to die. But hang on for this riveting true story of Ramon Sampedro (Javier Bardem), the Spanish sailor who ruptured his spine in a diving accident at twenty-six and spends the next thirty years being cared for on his family's farm in Galicia.
That could have been a preachy biopic becomes poetry in the hands of the gifted director and writer and editor and composer Alejandro Amenabar, 32. As he showed in The Others, the 2001 thriller with Nicole Kidman, Amenabar is a master at orchestrating mood.
The film, quite rightly, is a tour de force for Bardem, 35, who is skillfully aged by Jo Allen's makeup design. The actor's acclaimed work in 2000's Before Night Falls and more recently in just one mesmerizing scene as a drug lord in Collateral, hardly prepares you for what he does as Ramon. He gives a funny, touching and vital performance that makes an already tough Best Actor Oscar race that much harder to call. Cheers, too, for the luminous Belen Rueda as a lawyer on Ramon's case with her own fears to harbor. In a scene of magical realism, Ramon dreams he leaps out of his window and flies like a bird. It's a moment that catches the soaring spirit of the film itself.