The Sea Inside [subtitled]

The Sea Inside

The Sea Inside is a Spanish movie about a quadriplegic seeking euthanasia. Evidently it is based on a true story.

I’ll get to the merits of the movie momentarily, but first off I want to mention that as burdensome as it can be dealing with subtitles for two hours, the subtitles in this movie are horrible. They’re too quick for one thing, so you have to be a speed reader in some cases to read them in their entirety. But more important, they’re white with little or no outline, so any time the bottom part of the screen is a light color—like a white bed sheet—they might as well be in invisible ink. Ridiculous. I’d guess I was able to read about 70% of the subtitles.

That detracts significantly from a movie I enjoyed a fair amount otherwise.

It’s a slow-paced, thoughtful movie, so especially when you factor in the subtitles headache, it’s not an easy movie to get through.

But it’s intelligent, it’s not unnecessarily complex or confusing in structure, it deals with an important issue, and in general it’s a well-made, worthwhile film.

The main character broke his neck in a diving accident as a young adult, abruptly bringing to an end a very active, gusto-grabbing lifestyle (including traveling the world as a sailor). In the twenty-eight years since, he has been largely confined to his bed, only very rarely using a wheelchair, and has been cared for by his father, brother, sister-in-law, and nephew. He is able to speak and move his head, but not the rest of his body. He can perform a few functions with his mouth (e.g., answer the phone by pulling on a string, write in some laborious fashion with a stick and a keyboard and monitor), but is almost wholly dependent on others.

He has decided that he prefers to die.

In addition to his family, he is also visited by and interacts with an attorney who has agreed to take his case to be allowed to kill himself pro bono (and who is dealing with her own physical and mental deterioration from the effects of unpredictable strokes), a local woman factory worker/disc jockey who seeks him out after seeing him on television, a quadriplegic priest who seeks to talk him out of his decision, and others.

Through it all he is charismatic, witty, humane, dignified—probably unrealistically so, in fact. In a way he’s almost too content, too stable, too much able to enjoy people for it to be understandable why he’s intent on dying. Plus he doesn’t seem to be in significant physical discomfort. So why is he adamant that his life is not worth living?

Early on is an important clue as to why his surface behavior doesn’t match what one might expect from someone who is suicidal. He says something like “When you’re so totally dependent on others, you learn to smile when you cry.” Evidently he has learned that in order to maintain good relationships with people and increase their tendency to provide him the care he needs and make his life somewhat less horrible, being kind and charming and positive is a lot more effective than being angry and bitter, and complaining and putting out a lot of negative energy.

It’s not that he never complains or never snaps at anybody—he’s certainly upset by the fact that so many people do not believe he should receive the assistance he needs to kill himself—but he’s a pretty mellow, good-natured, likable guy. Women fall for him in a way, and even get jealous of each other and compete for his attention.

One thing that was not clear to me is, why now? He speaks as if the whole twenty-eight years has been an undignified existence, and he mentions sending his then-girlfriend away shortly after the accident because he had already determined he was no longer fit to love or be loved. There’s no indication anything in particular has changed to make him prefer death now rather than the whole last twenty-eight years.

There’s no question—as one can guess from my discussion of The Bridge—what side of the issue I’m on. I’m outraged that people can think it’s up to anyone other than the person himself when or if he prefers to kill himself. I understand it’s a little trickier in a situation like this where he’s so non-functional that it wouldn’t be enough to just let him kill himself so you’d have to actively participate in the killing for it to happen, but still.

As I mentioned when I wrote about The Bridge, this is really a nightmare kind of scenario for me—to be convinced that continued life is so intolerable as to be clearly worse than death, and to be coercively kept alive by paternalistic people overriding one’s choices.

I was indignant on his behalf as people coached him on what he needs to do and say to better his chances of obtaining permission to die from the powers that be. Especially since the magic words are so elusive. There’s probably nothing he can say or any way he can say it that will sway people who operate under the assumptions that only the sane decisions of sane people deserve to be honored, and no sane person can truly want to die.

So he has to deal with even some of the people closest to him trying to talk him out of his decision, pushing him to talk about his past and his emotions to probe for some kind of weak spot that shows his position isn’t really what he claims it to be and of course he’s better off remaining alive.

For Pete’s sake, he’s stated his position clearly and repeatedly. That should settle it.

About the only thing I could think to say on the other side is that while his case is fairly easy, any way you write the laws to allow for euthanasia—especially this kind of active euthanasia where the person is incapable of killing himself—will open the door to people being killed in a lot of gray area cases where it’s not clearly an exercise of their autonomy. So maybe people like this man being forced to stay alive and suffer is the lesser of the evils compared to a system where a lot of people who shouldn’t be killed are euthanized.

That’s the closest I can come to a reasonable point on the other side, but I don’t buy it. I think euthanasia should be allowed, and that the person’s expressed wishes should establish a strong prima facie case for it. The burden of proof should be squarely on those who would say the person lacks the capacity to make decisions that should be honored; he shouldn’t have to jump through all the hoops and prove himself and his competence.

One reason I say that is that I’m strongly opposed to some of the most common reasons people would override such choices. I think if I were convinced that the review of these decisions would be by people motivated solely by secular ethical considerations, with the best interests of the patient in mind, and who do not start from a position that euthanasia is always wrong in principle, then I would not be as uncomfortable with such reviews.

Because in the real world, people making moral determinations about matters like this are most of the time convinced that a person’s life “belongs” in some metaphysical sense to some fictitious being in the sky, and that they are qualified to pronounce what that being prefers to happen in a given case. So I actually would want the safeguards concerning euthanasia to be very loose, since those safeguards are typically going to be enforced by dangerously delusional people, people who have absolutely no business making life and death decisions for others.

Though my sympathies are clearly on one side of the issue, one character on the other side that I thought was interesting was the man’s brother. He’s strongly opposed to his brother’s decision, mostly for the usual reasons about God and all that, but toward the end of the movie, you get a little insight into what else is going on inside him.

He has really forfeited the better part of his life to care for his brother. As he says, he wanted to travel the world as well. He is not at all suited to the sedentary existence he’s had to live for decades in order to sustain the kind of environment necessary for his brother to survive. If his brother now decides to toss in his cards, then he feels that in effect his sacrifice has been for naught, that his efforts are not being acknowledged and respected.

If the quadriplegic man’s life has no meaning, then the brother’s devoting so much of his own life to caring for him has been pointless, if not counterproductive in the sense that it’s maintained a state of misery that could have and should have ended twenty-eight years ago. That he cannot allow himself to believe.

Like I say, I think The Sea Inside is a good to very good movie, but I’m hesitant to recommend it too highly because I have to think many people will find it grueling to get through, especially with the poor subtitling.

I’ll also mention that I thought the fantasy sequences where he imagines himself getting up out of bed and having full use of his body (and even being able to fly) are quite moving. Very nicely placed in the movie for maximum emotional impact.

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