Suicide film sparks 'right to die' debate

Spanish movie drama about a paralysed man wins plaudits and puts government under pressure

Spain's brightest young film director and one of its best actors have been the unlikely sparks to ignite a debate over whether this Catholic country should legalise euthanasia.

A new film about the true-life suicide of Ramón Sampedro, a charismatic, tetraplegic sailor, drew most of the Spanish cabinet and prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, to the opening night.

Made by Alejandro Amenábar, who directed Nicole Kidman in The Others, and starring Javier Bardem, the film is becoming an unexpected hit. As Spaniards pour into cinemas, Zapatero has come under pressure to follow the Dutch and Belgian examples by legalising euthanasia. Spain's Catholic church has conducted a ferocious campaign to prevent euthanasia getting anywhere near the statute books.

Sampedro, paralysed from the neck down by a diving accident at 25, became famous, and adored by many women, in Spain because of his long and doomed battle for permission to kill himself.

What the film Mar Adentro (The Sea Inside) does not prove, and what Spanish police are unable to discover, is the identity of whoever prepared a potassium cyanide concoction Sampedro drank to kill himself - a crime carrying a 10-year jail sentence.

'When I have drunk this I will have renounced one of the worst types of slavery, that of being a living head glued to a dead body,' Sampedro said on a videotape later shown on TV. 'You can punish the person helping me if you want. But you know that what you will simply be doing is seeking revenge,' he said on the tape, which was watched many times by the actors in The Sea Inside. Senior members of Zapatero's party, backed by some opposition groups, want him to deliver on an election pledge and set up a parliamentary committee to investigate legalising euthanasia.

'Parliament is the right forum for finding out how people feel about this subject,' said Matilde Valentín, social affairs spokeswoman for the Socialists. Her call was backed by Salvador Paniker, president of Spain's Right To Die With Dignity group, who said that polls showed 70 per cent of Spaniards favoured legalising euthanasia. 'The people's opinion on this is way ahead of that of the politicians, who have decided to look in the opposite direction,' said Paniker, a Spanish philosopher and writer.

'The film invites us to reflect,' agreed the justice minister, Juan Fernando López Aguilar, who nevertheless said there were no immediate plans to introduce a law.

Zapatero, asked to give his opinion, admitted that personally he could not have helped Sampedro to kill himself but said it was time for a proper debate. 'The film, paradoxically, is a hymn to life,' he said. 'The defence of the freedom to die is, itself, a hymn to life.'

The Catholic church has attacked the film, adding euthanasia to a long list of battles it is waging with the Socialist government, which has pledged to introduce gay marriage, make divorce and abortion easier, and limit religious education.

Luis de Moya, a priest and also a tetraplegic, denounced the film as being 'drenched with falsities' and accused Amenábar, 31, of deliberately leading people to believe that euthanasia was the best thing for tetraplegics.

'If euthanasia is legalised in Spain, I imagine "specialist" centres will soon spring up as they have done in other countries,' said de Moya. 'It will be just like with the abortion clinics.'

María del Mar Cogollos, president of a Spanish spinal injuries association, said Sampedro, who died in 1998, was an anti-hero: 'He never managed to come to terms with his condition. This film will do a lot of harm to tetraplegics like myself who fight daily to get on with life.'

The New York Times hailed the film, shown at the Venice Film Festival last week, as 'poignant' and an early contender for the Golden Lion prize, while Bardem is considered a potential for the best actor's award.

'I read Ramón Sampedro's book a few years ago and I don't know if it was because it was about death, or if it was the way he expressed himself, but I was absolutely enthralled,' Amenábar said. Bardem, 35, needed five hours of make-up a day to transform him into a tetraplegic 50-year-old.

'It certainly was an enormous physical challenge,' said Bardem, who won best actor in Venice in 2000 for his role as gay Cuban poet, Reinaldo Arenas, in Before Night Falls. 'I could only move my neck, my head and my eyes.'


Giles Tremlett in Madrid

The GuardianTramp

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