Saturday, February 24, 2007

Reflections on the Overlooked “Children of Men”

The 79th Annual Academy Awards ceremony takes place tomorrow night in Los Angeles. Many fine films have been nominated for well-deserved recognition within the various categories of awards.

Yet, as always, there are some films that have been overlooked. One such film, in my view, is director Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men.

Like last year’s The Constant Gardener, Children of Men is a topical and (no doubt for many) uncomfortable film. Well-crafted and impeccably acted, the film takes a mesmerizing yet terrifyingly grim view of humanity’s not-too-distant future. In doing so, it reflects many of the all-too common injustices and horrors of our present day – xenophobia, the forced detention and torture of immigrants and/or those deemed “our enemies,” environmental degradation, and the many forms of human violence– including terrorism and war.

And like The Constant Gardener, Children of Men inexplicably missed out on a Best Picture nomination. In its place it seems we have the cute and humorous, though inconsequential, Little Miss Sunshine. Now, don’t get me wrong, Little Miss Sunshine is a well-made and enjoyable film – but Best Picture?

This post, however, is not about the (numerous) shortcomings of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Instead, I’d like to take this opportunity to share some thoughts and reflections on Cuarón’s powerful film, Children of Men.

A world without children

Based on P.D. James’ 1992 novel of the same name, Children of Men is set in Britain in the year 2027, a time that has not seen the birth of a child anywhere in the world for the past eighteen years. Although a global flu pandemic is mentioned to have taken place just prior to this infertility crisis, no real explanation is ever given for this tragedy – one that has plunged humanity into a state of hopelessness. The graffitied plea for “The last one to die [to] please turn out the light,” says it all.

The world outside of Britain is in an even worse state of chaos and despair. The film attests to this by providing tantalizing though disturbing snippets of news reports on such calamities as the “siege of Seattle, now entering Day 1000,” and brief glimpses of newspaper clippings depicting various cities – Kuala Lumpur, Moscow, New York engulfed in flames.

Sectarian violence and nuclear war, along with their ensuing environmental degradation, have devastated whole continents. Only Britain, it seems, has any functioning government; any semblance of order – yet at a terrible price.

In the Britain of 2027, all immigrants and refugees (or “fugees” as they’re called) are “hunted down like cockroaches.” Public service announcements remind citizens of the illegality of hiding fugees, and of the necessity of Britain’s citizenry to “soldier on” under its government’s totalitarian policies.

Much of the first part of the film is set in London – gray, grimy and periodically rocked by terrorist bombings. More than one reviewer has noted that the film’s depiction of the look and conditions of the futuristic British capital (and of the Bexhill refugee camp) evoke the reality of present-day Baghdad. Indeed, as the New York Times’ film critic Manohla Dargis notes: [Children of Men] imagines the unthinkable: What if instead of containing Iraq, the world has become Iraq, a universal battleground of military control, security zones, refugee camps and warring tribal identities?”

Adds film critic Tim Robey, “As a virtuoso exercise in the choreography of chase and carnage, Children of Men packs quite a wallop.”

The attacks on London are described by the government as the work of a terrorist organization known as “the Fishes,” a group dedicated to liberating the fugees who are held in deplorable conditions, either in cages on the streets of the capital, or in places like the seaside town of Bexhill – now converted into a vast and volatile refugee camp. Bexhill, notes Robey is “an infernal war zone . . . a jittery locus of ordeal that makes Black Hawk Down look like a scuffle in a souk.”

Without doubt, the film is a bleak and pessimistic glimpse into humanity’s all-too possible future.

Yet in an interview with MovieWeb, Cuarón observes that, “I have a very grim view, not of the future, [but] the present; I have a very hopeful view of the future . . . I believe an evolution of human understanding . . . is happening in the youngest generation. I believe that the . . . generation to come is the one that is going to come with new schemes and new perspectives on things.”

A glimmer of hope

Cuarón’s glimmer of hope is reflected in his film, though certainly not in its opening sequences. In these first scenes we’re introduced to Theo (played by Clive Owen), a former activist now merely existing as a jaded and forlorn bureaucrat. After narrowly surviving a bomb blast in a crowded London cafe, Theo is contacted by his ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore). She requires his help to get a young fugee woman (Claire-Hope Ashitey) to the coast. The young girl in question, named Kee, is pregnant, and Julian, a member of the Fishes, is determined to get her to the Human Project, a group of scientists based on the Azores and dedicated to curing the infertility that is bringing about humanity’s agonizing and protracted death.

Yet not all of the members of the Fishes want to see Kee leave Britain. As fugees, she and her child could be used as powerful pawns in efforts to incite an uprising against the government and its inhumane immigration policies. The problem, of course, is that this particular faction of the Fishes is just as violent and inhumane as the government they’re dedicated to overthrowing.

What follows is a suspenseful and, at times, grueling chase-movie – one that follows Theo’s attempts to get Kee safely to the coast and the waiting Human Project ship, appropriately named “Tomorrow.” Ironically, the most effective way for Theo and Kee to reach their destination is through the Bexhill refugee camp. Yet members of the Fishes are in hot pursuit and they’ll stop at nothing to get possession of Kee and her child.

I appreciate the fact that Cuarón’s film has, as Manohla Dargis notes: “none of the hectoring qualities that tend to accompany good intentions in Hollywood.”

Elaborating on this observation, Dargis writes:

Most of the people doing the preaching turn out to be dreadfully, catastrophically misguided; everyone else seems to be holding on, like Theo’s friend Jasper, a former political cartoonist who bides his time with laughter and a lot of homegrown weed while listening to Beatles covers and rap. Still others, like Theo’s wealthy cousin, Nigel, who’s stashing away masterpieces like Michelangelo’s “David” for safekeeping in his private museum while Rome, New York and probably Guernica burn, can only smile as they swill another glass of wine. Hope isn’t the only thing that floats, as a song on the soundtrack reminds us.

Keeping hope alive

I found it interesting that those who help Kee and Theo the most are women (Julian, the mid-wife Miriam, the Roma refugee Marichka) and a non-typical male in the shape of Jasper (Michael Caine), Theo’s old hippie friend. Jasper’s outsider’s status also gifts him with a potentially dangerous perspective on the carnage plaguing London: “Every time the government gets into trouble,” he observes, “a bomb goes off.”

In light of this observation on the role of women and non-conforming males in the film, I couldn’t help but think that the “children of men,” i.e. the population of this bleak future world, suffer as they do as the result of being products of a society dominated by what Benedictine monk Bede Griffiths has described as the “masculine, active, aggressive, rational, scientific mind.”

In such a world, qualities of the “feminine, passive [i.e. receptive in a dynamic and creative way], patient, intuitive and poetic mind” are scorned and thus absent (or eradicated) from decision-making processes and institutions – be they government or rebel.

As you’ve probably gathered, I’m not limiting the determining of my definition of masculine and feminine to whatever anatomical apparatus we may have between our legs. As Australian author Caroline Jones has perceptively observed, when talking about the masculine/feminine opposites, we’re actually referring to an “attitude of mind, not with biological gender.”

In the world of Children of Men, it is those women and men open to embodying the feminine qualities outlined above, who make the crucial sacrifices necessary to keep hope alive and thus hold (and protect) the key for humanity's future. They do this in a world brought to its knees by those obsessed with the shadow-side of the masculine – a shadow-side marked by domination, violence, authoritarianism, and the various phallic-shaped weapons of death and destruction.

“The world today,” says Bede Griffiths, “needs to recover [the] sense of feminine power, which is complementary to the masculine and without which [humanity] becomes dominating, sterile, and destructive.” Children of Men graphically depicts such a state of fallen humanity.

Theo’s journey

Yet in the midst of such brokenness I found it compelling (and hopeful) to watch Theo’s transformation from impotent cog in the machinery of a masculine-run-amok society, to an individual who, while maintaining the best qualities of the masculine “attitude of mind,” is also willing and able to let himself express grief and to be tender and caring – almost mothering – of Kee. (Why is it that a man in touch with his feelings and willing and able to show his emotions is so threatening to some Christians? This is even all the more perplexing given that Jesus employed the image of a protective mother hen gathering her chicks under her sheltering wing, when describing his love – a love which, incidentally, we’re called as Christians to emulate.)

My sense is that on some unconscious level, Theo comes to realize that in order for him and Kee (and thus humanity) to survive, the world produced by the “children of men” must be radically transformed. And for this to happen we have to start caring, we have to start looking out for one another – including those deemed “the other” by our fearful governments.

In short, we have to embody compassion – a quality that, as theologian Sally B. Purvis reminds us, embraces and celebrates “relationality, mutuality, and solidarity as theological and ethical values.”

Of course, the embodiment of compassion can only happen when the feminine in all of us, along with the masculine, is recognized, honored, and embodied. The frenetic pace of Cuarón’s film implies that we urgently need to wake up to this realization. Furthermore, it seems obvious to me that the film’s depiction of Theo’s (and by extension, our own) waking up to this reality, is intrinsically connected to the second chance that the film’s offers to the sterile, devastated, and violent world of the “children of men.”

I appreciate the way Theo’s journey of consciousness is visually presented: “Every so often,” observes the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis, “the camera pointedly drifts away from Theo, as it does with the dead policemen, to show us a weeping old woman locked in a cage or animals burning on pyres. In time, though, the camera comes closer to Theo as he opens his eyes – to a kitten crawling up his leg, to trees rustling in the wind – until, in one of the most astonishing scenes of battle I’ve ever seen on film, it is running alongside him, trying to keep pace with a man who has finally found a reason to keep going.”

Ethan Alter, reviewing the movie for Film Journal International, echoes Dargis’ observation when he notes that: “It’s through his grueling experiences on the road with Kee that Theo remembers how to care for a person and, by extension, a cause.”

Cuarón himself reflects upon this theme in the film’s production notes: “I’ve seen those beautiful photographs of Earth taken from outer space,” he says, “and you see clouds and you see the shape of continents . . . but what you don’t see are the colors of each of the countries you see in maps. These invisible lines are created by ideologies – sometimes, absurd ones. I have to ask what right do we have to close the door on people that are in need? These complex issues are being thought about in America and Europe, and looked at very differently – how are immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers going to be treated? This is something happening now – the near future is now. I think all of us working on the film thought that you have to get the human experience [in order] to get to [authentic] social and political [understanding]. It’s something that needs compassion more than an ideology.”

The key

In the end, I think that it is the compassion brought to life in those attempting to help and protect Kee that proves to be the human quality worthy of hope, risk, and sacrifice. This belief in and hope for compassion, suggests the film, keeps us going in spite of our own failings and inadequacies; in spite of the greed, hubris and violence (spiritual and as well as physical) that we encounter daily as a result of the policies and actions of governments, political groups of various stripes, religious structures and traditions, and various corporate entities and practices.

It’s a long and difficult journey to a better tomorrow. Struggle and sacrifice are unavoidable. Yet we possess within each one of us the key to this more just and compassionate tomorrow. This key is both the divine call and potential we all have to be compassionate, to be, in other words, incarnations of God’s transforming love in the world. Throughout our lives we’re called to birth this compassion again and again through our words and actions.

In it’s stunning and moving representation of the call and struggle to embody compassion in a world overtaken by dominating power, self-interest, mindless consumption, lack of creativity, and violence, Children of Men’s depiction of Theo’s journey lifts up a template for us all.

Of course, it’s not a new template. Indeed, it’s as old as humanity; one that is written on the human heart and which has been lovingly and courageously embodied by men and women throughout the ages and across all cultures. Yet it seems we need to be periodically reminded of it and its call for compassion in our lives and in our world. I’m glad there are filmmakers like Alfonso Cuarón who are unafraid to allow their films to creatively and entertainingly serve as such reminders.

I can well imagine that Cuarón bleak vision of humanity’s future worked against Children of Men in the eyes of some critics and audience members. Yet in averting our gaze from the film’s depiction of a ruined and despairing world we can easily overlook the film’s portrayal of humanity’s hope and struggle for compassion.

Like the seemingly insignificant emergence of a flower through a near-imperceptible concrete crack, this portrayal, achieved primarily through the film’s focus on Theo and his journey, conveys something our battered world desperately needs each one of us to cherish, honor, and emulate: compassion.

For this reason alone, with or without a Best Picture nomination, Children of Men is a film worth seeing.

See also the previous Wild Reed post: Reflections on Babel and the “Borders Within.”


Mark J. Andrews said...

I have a rather shorter take on CoM: the film graphically illustrates the results of a pro-choice/anti-life/cult of infertility that is gripping the West.

Humane Vitae was the Catholic Church's warning shot across Modernity's bow, that there is something critical missing in our ongoing infatuation with non-reproductive sex: acceptance of our natural fertility is also acceptance, in a way, of God's love, shown in creation of new life. Rejection of that wild, creative gift places humanity right back at the gates of Eden, clicking shut behind us.

One need look no farther than the declining birthrates throughout Europe for living proof of socialist enui: in two or three generations, Europe will go Muslim via a peaceful Islamic invasion. Very few shots will be fired as Europe, having forgotten its Christian roots, will also have rejected the notion that there is anything worth dying for - or living for.

Calling this "phallicide" is too simple; "suicide" is the word for what we're seeing. "Children of Men" shows how bad it could get.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi Mark,

Thanks for you comment.

Well, you’ve certainly articulated your views on the Catholic Church’s “official” teaching on the purpose of sex, and on this teaching’s non-reception by the vast majority of Catholics. Yet it’s quite a leap to declare that such non-reception means that these Catholics have embraced an “anti-life” ethic, and that they’ve totally rejected “natural fertility.”

I have a hard time reading Children of Men as an indictment of all those “bad” Catholics who (by and large, in good conscience, it should be noted) have rejected Humane Vitae.

If this were the case, wouldn’t the fertility crisis in the film just be affecting them? Yet instead, it’s global. It’s affecting all of humanity – regardless of religion. For example, it’s not pitting, as you seem to be doing, Christians against Muslims.

Also, I fail to see how the film illustrates the results of a “pro-choice cult” when, clearly, people in the film have not chosen to be infertile?

In short, it seems you’re offering a very narrow ideological reading of Children of Men. Personally, I’d rather “read” the film as a visual text and allow it to speak its own message – one that (and I think most people would agree) is much more complex, richer, universal, and, ultimately, hopeful.