Films for the Culture of Death; Petitions Against Embryos

Grim Agendas Wrapped in Likable Characters

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, OCT. 7, 2004 ( The annual Venice Film Festival, the Italian equivalent to the Oscars, announced on Oct. 2 what it considers to be this year’s finest films.

Though ostensibly the festival celebrates diversity, this year’s top awards went to two films dealing with remarkably similar themes. First prize was given to Mike Leigh’s “Vera Drake,” the fictional story of a woman who administered saline abortions to indigent mothers in working-class 1950s England.

Second prize went to the Spanish film by Alejandro Amenábar titled “The Sea Within,” whose screenplay is based on the story of Ramón Sampedro, a quadriplegic who petitioned the Spanish government to be allowed assistance in ending his own life.

Piling on accolades, the judges not only chose these two films as the year’s best, but also awarded their respective leads — Imelda Staunton as Vera Drake and Xavier Bardem as Ramón Sampedro — top prizes as best actor and best actress. Propelled by critical praise, “Vera Drake” will be released in the United States on Oct. 22 while “The Sea Within” will open on Dec. 17, just in time for Christmas.

One can’t help but see these films as agitprop for a certain cultural agenda, closely allied with what John Paul II has so aptly named the culture of death.

Both of these films portray their heroes as very likable characters. Vera Drake comes across as an excellent mother, loving wife and caring neighbor, who just happens to be performing illegal abortions on the side. When faced with her crimes, her defense casts her as a sort of obstetric Robin Hood, performing abortions gratis for women who otherwise couldn’t afford them.

By creating a social context for this film where the wealthy can easily rid themselves of unwanted offspring while poor mothers, unable to feed even the children they have, are prevented only by economic factors from having abortions, the film frames the moral question in terms of equality rather than tackle the deeper ethical issue of eliminating unwanted lives.

“The Sea Within” lacks the subtlety of “Vera Drake” and in fact contains several bald anti-Catholic references. Nonetheless, its premises closely parallel those of the English film. Ramón Sampedro, injured in an accident at the age of 24, has spent the past 26 years bedridden as a quadriplegic. He desires to die since he says his helpless, dependent life is “no life at all.” He is portrayed as a cultured, intelligent man, serene and resolute in his decision.

Ironically, given its subject matter, the film is touted as celebrating life. Those who support Sampedro’s “right to die” are shown to bloom and grow in his fertile presence, while those who oppose him slowly decay or remain trapped in their bleak existence.

Sampedro is lovingly cared for by his brother and his sister-in-law Manuela who have a teen-aged son. Manuela never waivers in her affection for Ramón and, while perhaps personally not in favor of his decision, respects his right to make it.

By contrast, the brother, intractably opposed to Ramón’s suicide, is depicted as a dogmatic simpleton, who merely shouts his disapproval while watering his cows, as inarticulate as the animals around him.

The chief opponent of Ramón Sampedro’s plan, however, is Father Francisco, a Jesuit priest and paraplegic himself, who first appears in the film making a televised declaration that Ramón wishes to die because he doesn’t receive enough love from his family. The viewer knows this statement is not only heartless but patently false, and the film sets the priest up from the beginning as an uninformed character.

The most problematic character in the story is Rosa, a single mother of two children. She visits Sampedro after seeing him on television, intent on convincing him that life is worth living. In a few short moments, Sampedro has turned the tables on her, informing her that the only reason she is taking an interest in him is to give meaning to her own life. The film progresses, portraying her life as increasingly pathetic until she takes up Sampedro’s cause.

Director Amenábar effectively employs drab colors and shabby scenery as a metaphor for Sampedro’s worn-out, used-up life. By contrast, Sampedro’s dream world is bathed in golden light. Amenábar fills the screen with smiling, loving faces focusing on the beauty of each individual expression.

The viewers’ emotional sympathy for Sampedro and his friends clouds the question at hand and no intelligent case is ever made for the underlying problems with assisted suicide.

As I stumbled out of the dark theater on Monday, the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, I was struck by the contrast between the two artists, Francis and Amenábar.

St. Francis is credited with writing the first poem in the Italian language, his “Canticle of the Sun,” in which he praises the Lord “for Sister Death! No mortal can escape her kiss.” Yet the art of the poor man from Assisi extols the humility of accepting death from God’s hand, while Amenábar’s film proudly proclaims the right to death on demand.

* * *

Taking Aim at Law 40

Life issues not only dominated the film world this week, but also made their presence felt in popular politics.

The so-called radical parties of the Italian government presented 4 million signatures petitioning a referendum to overturn “Law 40,” an ordinance regulating artificial procreation.

Among other things, Law 40 prohibits the screening of embryos and the creation of more embryos than needed for implantation and “therapeutic” human cloning. Before the passage of the law last February, Italy was popularly known as the bioethical Wild West, due to the absence of any regulations regarding artificial procreation.

Opponents of the new legislation, looking for the 2.5 million signatures necessary to create a popular referendum, took to the squares and streets of Rome, with cheery little stands and pleasant people proffering pens to passers-by. Armed with propaganda acclaiming the benefits of embryonic stem cell research and stories of personal tragedies of couples desperately wanting children, they successfully played on Roman sympathies and gathered the names needed for their referendum.

A typical case deployed to garner sympathy was that of a couple from Bologna who had undergone in-vitro fertilization resulting in a child with Down syndrome. Had they been able to screen their embryos, the disease would have been detected and the couple could have aborted and tried again. Five years later, they are suing the doctor for wrongful life.

This story speaks volumes to Italian who have on average one child and want that child to be “perfect.”

I spoke to many friends, colleagues and strangers about why they had signed the referendum and most said they didn’t really know what it was about, but that they thought people should have a “right to have families” and that “stem cell research saves lives, right?”

Looking on Italian Web sites for more information, I found countless sites supporting the referendum, and nothing arguing against it. Many of these pro-referendum sites were created by abortion activists who fear that attributing rights to embryos could eventually endanger their practice. Similarly, in the parish churches, no contrary opinions were displayed.

On Sept. 30, holding a sign reading “No Taliban, No Vatican, Referendum!” the radical party leader proclaimed victory by presenting a million and a half more signatures than needed. The referendum will probably go to a vote next spring.

Seeing the imbalance of efforts in this struggle, Edmund Burke’s famous dictum comes to mind: In order for evil to triumph all it takes is for good men to do nothing.

* * *

Big Attention for the Little Flower

While the films in Venice were receiving lauds and praise, a quiet little film came out in the United Sta
tes. A quiet little film came out in the United States. “Thérèse,” the story of St. Thérèse of Lisieux was released on Sept. 30, a day prior to her feast day.

In Rome, celebrations for the saint were marked by the arrival of her relics from France to the Church of St. Lawrence in Lucina. St. Lawrence in Lucina sits in the heart of Rome’s most fashionable shopping district where the most elegant Romans stop for their midday “aperitivi.”

Amid the flashiest dressers, the most bejeweled ladies and the fanciest cars, a steady little stream of people flowed in and out of the church for the three days that the saint remained. Kneeling before the golden casket that contained her remains they venerated this saint and doctor of the Church who died at the age of 24.

The forecourt of the church was filled with posters displaying images of Thérèse and quotations from her autobiography. Volunteers from Catholic youth groups and the Carmelite order were present to talk about Thérèse’s example and to galvanize the young people of Rome into demonstrating heroic virtue in their own lives.

When I went to visit St. Thérèse, the church was filling up with guests for a wedding scheduled for that afternoon. Everyone in the wedding party was turned out in splendid finery and the church was luxuriously decorated.

Yet the insistent flow of the simply dressed pilgrims, quietly entering and silently praying in the first chapel to the right, aroused their curiosity. One by one, the guests came over, read the signs, looked at the box and then knelt to pray for a moment before returning to cell phones and photographers.

The humblest little flower had captured the most sophisticated eye.

* * *

Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Rome Campus. She can be reached at

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