If there is a right I treasure as much as the freedom of conscience, it is that concerning the time and manner of my exit from life’s bitter play. Needless to say, anyone at any time can scatter one’s brain matter all over a wall, or even step gingerly in front of a speeding train, but dying with dignity–or at least in one piece–is an option that should always be available, regardless of personal circumstances. It’s unlikely I would ever end my days unless racked with searing pain (or forced to endure another Star Wars movie), but it’s never the responsibility of government to assess my situation and either allow or disallow the most private of decisions. I’d like to fade away into a gentle sleep, so if I desire a trained physician or even trusted friend to administer a lethal dose of cyanide, I shouldn’t have to sneak around like a common criminal. That we’re still having this debate in this country (and much of the civilized world) boggles the imagination, but this is also a nation where complaints about exposed breasts exceed requests to be given factual information regarding an illegal, and deadly, war. Young men can be ripped apart for a freedom that extends no further than some Wall Street accountant’s ledger sheet, but I am barred from choosing that which doesn’t involve vomiting, screaming, and head-spinning nausea. It seems the state would rather keep you around as long as possible, just in case you haven’t yet found Jesus.
Alejandro Amenábar’s The Sea Inside is just such a tale; a quiet, yet fiercely political drama about an actual man, Ramon Sampedro (Javier Bardem), who petitioned the Spanish government for the right to commit suicide, only to be met with the standard denials, all of which revolved around the so-called “compassion” of religious principles. When we meet him, Ramon is the near the end of a decades-long “battle” with full paralysis. I say “battle” because he’s merely enduring life at this point, as he is literally frozen from the neck down. How he has survived this long is for the philosophers and medical community to debate, as I’d be tempted to ask for a throat slashing about ten minutes in. But here he is, and at this point, he’d like to end the charade. Reasonable enough, right? Ramon’s condition is the result of an ill-advised dive into a shallow cove, which makes his current state that much more obscene. After all, it was so damned preventable. At one time a vibrant, handsome man, he is now aging and depressed; entirely dependent on others for his every need.
Ramon does greet each day in the best possible manner (he smiles and cracks jokes), but this is no cinematic “life force” who lectures others about turning lemons into lemonade. He fully admits that his outward appearance masks a deep, unwavering sadness, which is the only reasonable response to having no movement below the neck. He continues to love music, “write” books, and draw (using a clever device that allows him to use his mouth). And of course, he retains an active imagination, as the sweet smell of the sea cruelly beckons from his bedroom window. He has a loving family, though once he decides to end his life, he meets strong resistance from his brother. Needless to say, only selfish motives inspire those he would leave behind, as no one could ever hope to convince someone like Ramon that there’s sunshine around the corner. Once Ramon begins his cause, he is even visited by well-wishers and “fans.” One woman, Rosa (Lola Duenas), wants to bathe and shave Ramon, in addition to having an obvious attraction to him, but when they first meet, Ramon cuts through her intentions with bitter accuracy. Still, they form a bond that works, and for once it’s not at all predictable or sentimental.
Ramon is also visited by a paralyzed priest; an earnest man who wants Ramon to embrace life, I guess because his collar commands it in defiance of all reason. A combination of the man’s wheelchair and extremely narrow stairs prevents a face-to-face meeting, but the two exchange barbs through their representatives. Thankfully, the priest comes across as deluded (as it must be), but not overly so. Ramon’s cause must triumph, but not by reducing his opponents to caricature. The conversation is the central theme of the film, as it pits individual choice against the forces of control and manipulation. Without a right to die (not just in law, but as a moral position), we are in service of power; open and accepting of a hypocrisy that can ask us to kill and die for abstractions, but not because we seek an end to crippling pain. Is this justice? Is this how we want to build a nation worth saving? Ramon is, then, the symbolic hope for all of us who believe that the only sacred components of civilization are that which promote the supremacy of the individual, while not at the expense of others. And if we must use the language of the saints, what greater love can a fellow human demonstrate for another than the alleviation of suffering? But no, the powers that be–always driven by the desire to humiliate and degrade–would rather pump you full of expensive drugs to keep your heart beating, even if your mind is rotting from the inside. Hell, especially if your brain is functioning below a normal state.
The Sea Inside is not necessarily grand cinema, nor does it inspire us to consider its artistic leanings, but it is effective and noble in the best sense. The narrative may drop from time to time (and might have used a bit of trimming), but I’m all in favor of screen propaganda when it’s in service of genuine freedom. Because the film is honest about its intentions, it cannot be criticized for its perspective, something the humorless “culture warrior” Michael Medved doesn’t understand. He’s more than entitled to reject the message, of course, but he obnoxiously insists that the film fails because it doesn’t present the “life” side of the debate. Medved fails to realize that art, or even mere entertainment, is not obligated to present a “balanced” argument. It doesn’t even need to have a perspective at all. This is a pro-choice film from top to bottom, and hating it for what it doesn’t say would be like attacking The Grapes of Wrath for not spending more time with the bankers. The only answer to a cultural artifact one finds disagreeable is to contribute a piece of one’s own, not ask that existing works conform to one’s prejudices.
One of the most powerful images (and one of the last) is that of Julia (Belen Rueda), a woman who had intended to help Ramon with his death, but at the last moment decided against it. She too suffers from a terrible malady, a debilitating illness that brings about a series of strokes until, eventually, she’s reduced to a drooling vegetable. Julia is a great case for assisted suicide, but she chooses the “moral” option, and as such is left shattered and alone. I’m glad the film chose to show her in this state, as she doesn’t even remember Ramon and the friendship they shared. She might be right with her imaginary being in the sky, but she’s just hanging on for its own sake. But that’s what the religious nuts who are increasingly on the march want us to do. Shut up, fall into line, and stick around for the warmth of Christ’s love. Strong minds and strong bodies need not apply; they only agitate the congregation.