March 28, 2009

Filming a desire for death: The Sea Inside

The Sea Inside is a tragic film- it is about a man who cannot move his limbs, still vibrant and full of humour on the inside, he lacks the facilities to take part in life. Consequently this man decides that he wants to die. Ramon Sampedro was a real person and the story is an account of his life and his later death. We are told that he was a fisherman, who one day dived into the water near his home in northern Spain and struck his head upon the seabed and broke his neck, he was rescued but was unable to move again. The film concentrates on what this means that he is unable and able to do: he is unable to do any of the things he enjoyed before he dived, he has to renounce his life, renounce his girlfriend, his career and even in a certain sense his family by deforming their lives. He lives in the imagination; there are some incredibly powerful sequences in the film where Sampedro imagines flying over the village to the sea, imagines getting up from his bed and kissing a girl, imagines the freedom of being able to physically move and yet every time, he returns to lying on his bed demanding the mercy and compassion of others. For him that kind of life is not one that he wishes to live and yet he cannot commit suicide for he cannot move to do so, and should any friend help him, they would become guilty of murder.

There are good arguments for and against euthanasia and the broader issue is not one that is easy to resolve, particularly in a film review. The film here actually takes almost no position on the broader issue. There are several moments in which Javier Bardem, acting as Sampedro, is asked about euthanasia, and rather than saying that everyone in his condition would desire to die or should desire to die, he merely states that he desires to die. Rather than argue that a quadriplegic has no life worth living anymore, Ramon suggests that he has no life worth living anymore. A fascinating debate with a quadriplegic priest makes that clear: the priest and Ramon disagree not so much about euthanasia as a principle available for all, but as to whether Ramon has the authority to decide whether his own life is worth living or whether it is something granted to him, which he has no authority to come to a decision about.

Ramon's decision impacts on a larger community: his friends. His family care for him in a sweetly affectionate way: one can see that their entire lives are based around his care. His brother resents that he wants to die, his father utters the most tragic line in the film- that the only thing worse than having a child who dies before you die, is when your child desires to die before you die. His sister in law's attitude to Ramon is motherly, bossy yet fundamentally protective and kind. Ramon's nephew Javier has a wonderful relationship with him- one of the achievements of this film is that it gets the affectionate and exasperated relationship between the teenager and the uncle perfectly. Then there are a circle of friends outside the family- in particular three women- Julia, Ramon's lawyer, who herself suffers from an incurable disease and whom Ramon is in love with, Gene a member of a local support group and Rosa a local factory worker who comes to see Ramon. Julia and Rosa are perhaps the most interesting of this collective for Julia faces the same choice as Ramon and ultimately decides to stay alive at the cost of her dignity and her mind.

The internal battle within Rosa is perhaps the most moving and important of the film. Rosa claims from the first moment she sees Ramon to be in love with him. She develops a dependancy upon him, talking to him about her own problems and rushing to see him at every point of the day or night. What is most interesting though about this relationship is that Rosa's conception of what she means by love evolves through the film. At the beggining and in the middle fo the film what Rosa means by love is a kind of dependance that makes you desire a person's presence and definitely not their suicide. Love for her means a reliance on another person- a care for them but a care for them which is instrumental to sustaining that reliance. It is only towards the end of the film that she attains another conception of love- that love might mean that you desire for a person the ends that they desire for themselves. Those two conceptions of love are very different- even though for most of us, most of the time they come together as one: Ramon's case means that Rosa has to separate them and decide which matters more to her, her decision has a nobility and a tragedy to it and in a sense her decision is her wooing of Ramon. That suggests a further thought that the first sense of love is the actual feeling we feel inside, the second is our rhetoric to inspire recipricocity.

That last sentence goes beyond the subject of this film- as I hope I have shown the film is about the subtle interweaving of love and death that Ramon's accident creates. On the one hand we have the deep individual desire of Ramon to die- he knows that there is nothing left for him in this life. On the other we have the drama of the contest within his friends between their love for Ramon as a support and a friend and their love for Ramon as an individual who they desire to be happy. These are not easy issues- but they are important- perhaps as important as the great political and ethical battles about euthanasia and in a sense they are more universal. Understanding that human beings are individuals and a tragedy for someone might not be one for you is the heart of understanding depression and sadness itself, understanding love is more fundamental even than that. This film has things to say about both issues.