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SEA INSIDE, THE - LIFE IS NOT AN OBLIGATION

Opening in Australian just a couple weeks after the world famous death of American coma patient Terri Schiavo, The Sea Inside is based the true story of Spaniard Ramón Sampedro (Javier Bardem) who fought for 30 years to be able to end his life after being paralysed in an accident. ‘Life is a right but not an obligation,’ he would say. Andrew L. Urban explores how films can contribute to the debate about one of the most divisive subjects in Western civilisation.

Somewhere between a biopic and a socio-political plea, The Sea Inside tackles the real life story of a Spanish fisherman whose body more or less died when he was a healthy and vibrant young man, diving into a shallow ocean pool, snapping his spinal column at the neck. For almost 30 years Ramon lay perfectly still in bed while his family fed, bathed and comforted him best they could. In this film, we see a sliver of that diminished life, and yet we can quickly sympathise with his situation. Whether we also sympathise with his desire to end his life will depend on a dozen influences in our individual lives. 

The film is clearly told from his point of view: Javier Bardem makes Ramón a sympathetic character, if flawed, and his intellectual argument is given ballast with great humanistic arguments – with which it is hard to argue. His older brother does, however, and his heated anger at Ramón might be seen as an attempt by writer/director Alejandro Amenábar to paint opponents of euthanasia as simplistic, emotionally narrow and morally blind.

This is where I believe cinema may come to the aid of the debate in real life. This anger is characteristic of those who label themselves ‘pro life’ and support every effort to artificially maintain human life, irrespective of the quality or dignity that has been drained from it. Typically, as is the case of Terri Schiavo, the angriest are those who opposed her husband’s attempts to carry out her wish of being allowed to die, after having already spent 15 years in a vegetative state. Anger is the most common manifestation of the anti-euthanasia camp; deeper understanding tends to characterise those who regard it as a courageous and compassionate act of humanity. Murder or Love?

"He’s learnt to cry with a smile"

The Sea Inside is not an angry film; even the long suffering Ramón Sampedro isn’t angry. He’s learnt to cry with a smile, as the screenplay puts it. Another film that tackles this subject with great sensitivity is The Barbarian Invasions. Now in his early 50s, Montreal university lecturer Remy (Remy Girard) is a divorced womaniser who loves life, even though – especially perhaps – now that he’s facing death from cancer.

Here too, the filmmakers present the story in a way that draws us into the world of the man condemned to suffer from illness, so that we are pushed to feel sympathy and understanding for his decision to die. Anger is restricted to those opposing this view.

In Australia, the famous euthanasia campaigner Dr Philip Nitschke is the subject of an award winning feature documentary, Mademoiselle and the Doctor, by Janine Hosking. A feisty 79-year-old, Mademoiselle Lisette Nigot, plans her suicide. Perfectly healthy, the French born academic does not want to endure "the horrible decrepitation of old age". Nitschke is single-minded in his determination to assist in 'peaceful deaths' and the cameras follow him as he conducts his controversial suicide workshops throughout Australia. He isn’t angry. His followers aren’t angry. But his opponents are mad as hell.

The Sea Inside is an especially gentle film; gentle in the sense that it is sensitive to the suffering of a man who is lucid and rational. Gentle in the sense the Amenábar uses magic realism to visualise Sampedro’s fantasies of taking a running jump at the window and flying out of it, across the fields and mountains to the sea beyond. The sea inside his mind. It’s his only escape. The film shows a man incapable of action, fantasising about flying, ultimately making good his decision to end his unwanted life. He has to fight his brother and the law, the bureaucrats and those other angry people who are opposed to euthanasia or any of its variants.

The power of this film comes from its gentle determination and Sampedro’s down to earth, uncluttered arguments. He’s no intellectual, and he doesn’t dress his rationale in some sort of spiritual context. To him life is a right, yes, but not an obligation. 

"the power of cinema"

Sampedro’s story reaches us through the power of cinema. As the great Hungarian director István Szabó puts it, “the greatest value of film is the close up – here we can show how emotions are born and changed in front of an audience like in no other artform. That is its power.” 

It is reassuring (if optimistic) to imagine that angry people who see films like The Sea Inside might be calmed by the humanity that is the basis for the argument in favour of the Sampedros, Remys and Mademoiselle Nigots of this world. Everybody is ‘pro life’; these people – whether in dramatised true stories, documentaries or dramatic fiction – show us that in some cases, the artificial, painful and / or meaningless maintenance of a life is a misguided act of cruelty. Sampedro’s wish was to be allowed to make the decision for himself, and being unable to function, he wanted those who would assist him to be acting within the law. 

That is a dignified, law abiding and life respecting stance.

Published April 14, 2005

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