April 5, 2005 -- “The Sea Inside” is a movie about one man's long struggle for the right to die. I just happened to see this film during the huge controversy concerning Terry Schiavo, a Florida woman in a persistent vegetative state. Her husband and some other family members said she did not want to live in this condition, but her parents said she did want to live. This disagreement continued for seven years in court, and continued even after Schiavo's death. The battle spilled over from the courtroom into politics when Congress had federal courts review the Florida court decisions. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court four times.
As a result of the Schiavo case, there will be pressure for new federal laws making it tougher for family members to disconnect feeding tubes from people in similar conditions. The entire Schiavo case revolved around what she wanted. The courts decided that Schiavo would not want to be kept alive in such a vegetative condition. The effect of changing the laws would be that you could be kept alive in a persistent vegetative state, with no hope of higher brain functions (such as the ability to think, feel, move or communicate), whether you want to be kept alive or not, even though the cost of such care could drag your family down to financial ruin.
There are certain similarities between the Schiavo case and that of Spaniard Ramón Sampedro. He is played by Javier Bardem in “The Sea Inside,” the story of Sampedro's legal struggle to die. Sampedro, a ship's mechanic, broke his neck in a swimming accident on August 23, 1968. He was unable to move or feel anything below his neck after that. The movie begins 30 years after the accident. By that time, Sampedro has been engaged in court battles in Spain for years. He asks that his doctor, “ ... without having criminal proceedings brought against him, be authorized to supply him with the substances necessary to end his life.”
Sampedro's petition for assisted suicide causes a firestorm of controversy in Spain. One of Sampedro's main opponents is a quadriplegic priest who tries to change Sampedro's mind. Sampedro's older brother José (Celso Bugallo) is also bitterly opposed to Sampedro's death wish. He vows he will not allow it in his house. Sampedro is up against an intractable legal system. One of his few allies is a lawyer, Julia (Belén Rueda), who also suffers from a disability. She is afflicted by a series of debilitating strokes. Julia has accepted Sampedro's case on a pro bono basis. Sampedro is also supported by Gené (Clara Segura) a representative of Derecho a Morir Dignamente (a group promoting the right to die with dignity).
Much of the story revolves around Sampedro's relationship with Julia and with Rosa (Lola Dueñas), a local woman who becomes one of his closest friends. At first, Rosa tries to convince Sampedro that life is worth living, but eventually, she learns to respect Sampedro's wishes. Sampedro tires of people who try to convince him he is wrong about the quality of his own life. He comes across as intelligent, witty, thoughtful, sensitive, and utterly convinced his life is no longer worth living. Despite the grim nature of the story, there is a good deal of wit and humor in the movie. One of the funniest scenes shows a priest in a battle of wits with Sampedro. The priest beats a hasty retreat after a verbal spanking from Sampedro and his sister-in-law, Manuela (Mabel Rivera).
A lot of people have called this film life-affirming, uplifting, etc. I found it pretty depressing, but it sure did make me appreciate my own life a lot more and it shows I have no excuse for not getting more accomplished. It also showed me that people shouldn't be so quick to make decisions for other people concerning how long a person should be made to suffer from a debilitating condition. To sentence a person to life in a prison of immovable flesh is more punishment than pro-life. For many activists in the film, the desire to keep Sampedro alive arose from their own needs, not his. Some people in the Schiavo case accused the husband of being a self-serving adulterer. The motives of some of those who wanted to keep Terry Schiavo alive may have been just as self-serving. Their desire to keep this poor woman's body alive probably had a lot less to do with what she wanted than what they wanted.
The laws in the United States, at this time at least, are less strict than those of Spain when it comes to assisted suicide. It is legal in Oregon, but only for terminally ill patients. There were 37 physician-assisted suicides in Oregon in 2004, most were terminally-ill cancer patients. The case of Dr. Jack Kevorkian highlights what happened to one doctor who believed in patient assisted suicide. Kevorkian helped some 100 patients die what he called a dignified death. He openly confronted law enforcement agencies and was finally sentenced to 10 to 25 years in prison for helping a man with Lou Gehrig's disease commit suicide. In case you were wondering, yes, there is a book and movie deal in the works on the life of Kevorkian.
Back to “The Sea Inside.” The acting in the film is superb, especially that of Bardem, who richly deserved his Academy Award nomination. In a less competitive year, he might have won, but Jamie Foxx just gave a performance that could not be beat this year. I thought Mabel Rivera's performance as Sampedro's sister-in-law was excellent. The look on her face as Sampedro said goodbye was as powerful an expression of sadness as I ever expect to see. The scene where she tells off the busybody priest who had slandered her family was priceless, as good as any scene in the movie.
The cinematography by Javier Aguirresarobe is excellent, capturing both the claustrophobic confined spaces of Sampedro's life, his soaring fantasies and the beautiful landscapes of the Galician region of Spain. The music in the film is also very effective. The musical score includes Galician bagpipes (Celtic peoples settled in Galicia). Multi-talented director Alejandro Amenábar (“The Others”) wrote the film's musical score. This film rates a B.
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