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Killing Us Kindly


photo of stars of movie

The Sea Inside. Directed by Alejandro Amenábar. Starring Javier Bardem, Belen Rueda, Lola Dueñas, Mabel Rivera, Celso Bugallo. 125 minutes. Rated PG-13 . Distributed by Fine Line Features.

Killing Us Kindly

Bizzaro Breathing Lessons

By Art Blaser

THE FILM The Sea Inside ("Mar Adentro") begins with the sound of quadriplegic Ramon Sampedro breathing.

Jessica Yu's 1996 Academy Award winning documentary starts the same way.

In Yu's Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien, audiences are treated to a 35-minute film of a life with dignity ... and a disability. The Sea Inside, by contrast, seduces its audience with more than two hours of good music, good acting, and trite phrasings of widely held prejudices, so that most people are unable to perceive that this is really a socially irresponsible film of what can only be called disability defamation.

Directed by Alejandro Amenabar and starring Javier Bardem as Ramon Sampedro, The Sea Inside was named the No. 1 Movie of 2004 by the Atlanta Journal Constitution. It's on the top-ten lists of the Cox News Service and the Omaha World Herald. It has garnered European Film Awards for Amenabar as Best Director and Bardem as Best Actor. The Boston Herald's James Verniere called it "life affirming." Critic Emmanuel Levy labeled it "a profound meditation on different forms and expressions of love." The Los Angeles Times's Carina Chocano named it "one of the most profound and uplifting dramas of the year."

Audiences have been even more enthusiastic. Many moviegoers seem to have been drawn to the movie out of sympathy with its pro-euthanasia theme. Almost half of those who rated it at the Internet Movie Database awarded it a rating of 10 out of 10.

It's a good movie. But it's a good movie that defames disabled people.The problem is that very few people recognize disability defamation when confronted with it.

What is this story that is enticing so many people? The Sea Inside is about the life and death of Ramon Sampedro. As as a young man, Ramon (I'll use his first name because later I'll be talking about other Sampedro family members) toured the world, then worked as a ship's mechanic. In 1968, at 26, Ramon had a diving accident, fracturing a cervical vertebra, and began life as a quadriplegic. After that, he spent almost all of his time in bed. He breathed unaided (no ventilator), read, wrote with a pen in his mouth or by operating a computer through a mouth-stick, and received his meals ("real food") being fed by others (usually his sister-in-law).

Ramon doesn't like to use a wheelchair, but is persuaded that using one during a trip to the La Coruna courthouse in northwestern Spain to plead his "right to die" might aid others with a similar death wish.

The court denies Ramon's request that people assisting in his death not be prosecuted, but eventually he devises an ingenious scheme to bring about his death: One person will purchase enough potassium cyanide for a lethal dose, another will mix it with water, and yet another will place the glass on his nightstand. A video camera will film his death.

On January 12, 1998, Ramon reads a statement into the camera: "I will renounce the most humiliating form of slavery -- to be a living head tied to a dead body."

Rosa (Lola Duenas), a single mother, sees Ramon on television and decides to visit him. They develop a relationship; later Rosa volunteers to help him die, as does Julia (played by Belen Rueda, a major television personality who hosts Spain's version of Wheel of Fortune), a lawyer who fights his case. The film version of Julia is a woman who herself is disabled, having had a series of strokes (as Ramon explains in the movie, he wanted to be represented by someone who "suffered from" a disability). In one scene, we see Julia having a stroke as she descends the stairs from a visit to her client. Ramon regrets that he cannot come to her aid (like Julia he suffers from inaccessibility). Soon thereafter Julia says of herself, "This isn't a life."

"Julia represents a group of women that loved Ramon after he was incapacitated [sic]," says the movie's promotional website. The fictionalization caters to the widely-held myth that disabled people want to die and share these feeling with intimates.

The real Rosa, Ramona Maneiro, is an articulate partisan for policies that would justify the deaths of disabled people. She and Manuela Solis (Ramon's sister-in-law, identified by her real name and played by Mabel Rivera) are politically savvy euthanasia advocates. The film portrays them as well intentioned but naive.

The film treats "right to die" opposition with gross simplification. A quadriplegic priest in a televised debate asserts what movie viewers already know to be false: that maybe Ramon's family isn't supportive. Later the priest arrives at the Sampedro home to argue with Ramon; the argument is conducted through a younger priest who carries messages up and down the stairs. The priest's opposition to Ramon's thinking is depicted as dogmatic and silly. Although Ramon acknowledges that not everyone with quadriplegia agrees with him, disability rights advocates' arguments are almost totally missing.

Though the movie ends with Ramon's death in 1998, in real life the cause continues. The movie itself, of course, is part of this. But there was also the airing of Ramon's death video on a primetime newscast; sister-in-law Manuela's appeal to the European Court on Human Rights (which declared her complaint "manifestly ill-founded") and her appeal to the United Nations Human Rights Committee (which ruled the complaint inadmissible). The Spanish government attempted, then dropped, a criminal prosecution of Maniero and others suspected to be involved in Ramon's death. Thousands of Spaniards, including members of Parliament, have expressed support for Ramon's action.

The Sea Inside reinforces three widely held myths:

The first is that of the autonomous individual who lives apart from politics and society, whose actions are only undertaken out of personal suffering, and, we are told to believe, have no effect on what others might do. "Who am I to judge others?" says Ramon at one point. "So don't judge me," he says later.

This is disingenuous. The death video, the appeals to courts in Spain and France (Strasbourg's European Court on Human Rights), and to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, and the distribution of the movie are all of course designed to affect public opinion. Ramon's posture as the individual who wants to be left alone, beleaguered by central authorities in Madrid and Rome, is simply false.

The second myth the film gives credence to is that most disabled people want to die. In preparing for his role, Bardem says he visited rehabilitation hospitals. This means he met disabled people at a time when disability shame is likely to far exceed disability pride. His comment that even when people were not supportive of Ramon's choice, they understood it, likely comes from his skewed exposure to disabled people.

Clichés which would be criticized were the film about anything other than disability here pass unnoticed. Disabled people "suffer"; are "incapacitated" and "bedridden." Hokey fantasy sequences in which the disabled person is "freed" are par for the course: "In the film's most remarkable sequence, Ramon, bedridden in his family's house in Galicia overlooking the sea, suddenly stirs, then lurches unsteadily to his feet," writes New York Times film critic Stephen Holden. "For a second, you wonder if his condition all these years has been an elaborate hoax, or if a miracle has occurred. As he steals out of the house and flies to the beach to join his beautiful lawyer Julia ..., the Puccini aria Nessun dorma, which he is playing on a phonograph, swells over the soundtrack, and they fall into a rapturous embrace. Then Ramon snaps to attention."

The third myth: nothing can be done about the undignified lives of people with disabilities (except to help them die). Thus, .writers can use the adjective "bedridden" and ignore the fact that Ramon was "bedridden" only because he stubbornly rejected a wheelchair. Living somewhere without stairs and paying attention to developments in adaptive recreation might not have made Ramon a "happy camper," but can make a sea of difference in life with a disability. But this kind of thing seems to go completely unremarked on in films (and books) of this nature.

So is The Sea Inside a "must see" or a "must avoid"?

Javier Bardem and Belen Rueda give well-acted performances, despite their nondisabilities. The script and soundtrack will captivate most audience members. Politics aside, it's a good movie. But it's a good movie that defames disabled people, having much in common with movies defaming people on the basis of gender or ethnicity.

The problem is that very few people will admit to disability defamation. Most people who see The Sea Inside will insist that they like disabled people (some of their best friends are disabled!); will insist that they liked (or loved) Ramon.

If we could put politics and debate aside, we might reject and boycott The Sea Inside in the hope that it would soon go away. We could even find write-ups from individuals like Walter Chaw (who calls it "a miserable little gimp-of-the-week exercise awash with cliches and platitudes") to justify our rejection. But since we don't live in a world without politics and debate, we should see it, and critique it -- publicly. We should check out the information and the trailer at http://www.theseainside.com and compare it with socially responsible views of life with a disability , like Yu's Breathing Lessons or the 1999 documentary King Gimp.

We can point out inaccuracies in reviews. Critics wrote that Ramon had an incurable disease, that he was paraplegic. This kind of sloppy reporting was found in the New York Times (which later ran a correction), the Hollywood Reporter, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Ottawa Citizen, the Boston Herald, and the Malay Mail. The film's critics also persist in characterizing opposition to euthanasia as a case of religious dogma overwhelming reason, either ignoring -- or unconscious of -- arguments by writers like Harriet McBryde Johnson and groups like Not Dead Yet. As disability rights advocates, we can write letters to the editor or opinion articles, using examples drawn from rational analysis, historical experience, and current practices (like The Netherlands') to lead audiences to recognize what's missing from The Sea Inside.

After all, any of us could come to be viewed in the disparaging terms with which Ramon described himself. We all are potential accomplices in shaping a world where life with a disability is perceived as worth living -- or not.

Posted Jan. 5, 2005

Avid moviegoer Art Blaser chairs the political science department at Chapman University.

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