Tuesday, December 15, 2009

'Children of Men' Movie - A Surprising Christmas Favorite

It is not the garbage I thought it was, per our reviewer Santiago Ramos, who scolded me for refusing to see the movie. I refused to see the movie because the director refused to read the book. Ramos has convinced me to see it nonetheless with this review that appears in the next issue of The Catholic Key:

Two Unlikely Christmas Favorites
Part Two of a Two-Part Series (Part One is Here)

By Santiago Ramos

Children of Men (2006). Directed by Alfonso Cuarón. Starring Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Claire-Hope Ashitey.

About the strange, glass-encased artwork by Marcel Duchamp titled The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even, I once heard an artist say: “If art had ceased to exist, and it was then recreated, this is what it would look like.” How unexpectedly wonderful life can be, when a pretentious echo from the gallery becomes useful in a different context! This is, indeed, the best way I can describe Alfonso Cuarón’s film Children of Men: If Christianity ceased to exist, and was then recreated, this is what it would look like. Understood in this way, it makes for a great Christmas film—for recapturing, to use the popular cliché, the meaning of Christmas.

I hear your objections. The brilliant Cuarón completely changes—he even bragged about not having read—P.D. James’ novel by the same name, which was the source for the film. James’ novel was a Christian allegory; Cuarón consciously strips the story free of any Christian references. What is left is a story completely played out on the natural, immanent stage of our finite Earth. But this is not an angry secular attack on Christianity that Glenn Beck can get worked up about (though he probably did, anyhow). Instead, Cuarón leaves us with a skeletal description of the shape of hope, and the way in which hope enters human history. That is, not through political revolution, not through pious discourse, but through a person—a baby.

The England of 2027, wherein the story begins, is a dying world. Women—due to genetic experimentation, pollution, or some other mysterious reason—have lost their ability to give birth. The problem is fundamentally physiological, not moral; it is a condition that we must be rescued from. The story begins with mourning: all of London weeps over the death of the youngest person left in the world, an 18 year old Argentine named Diego. An apathetic government bureaucrat named Theo (Clive Owen), can’t bear the pathetic, though understandable, weeping all around him, and decides to leave and visit a friend. Before he’ll get there, however, there will be a random terrorist bombing in a coffee shop, seconds after he leaves it—a common occurrence, blamed on a pro-immigrant terrorist group called the Fishes.

The Fishes are fighting against a fascist government in England, which has imposed order through martial law, secret police, and regularly rounds up immigrants—“fugees,” in the slang of the film’s universe—to send them to concentration camps in the south of the country. Out of the Fishes emerges Julian (Julianne Moore), a character something like John the Baptist, and also Theo’s ex-wife. Julian sends some Fishes to kidnap Theo, to drag him back to her hideout so she can ask him a favor. Theo, who has contacts in the government, is to obtain an official pass through government checkpoints so that the Fishes can smuggle a fugee girl named Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey) to the southern coast, where she will be met by an organization named the Human Project. Eventually, Theo discovers why Kee is to be protected: she is bearing a child, and thus, the hope of the world. The Human Project—which is a merely a symbol in the story, and doesn’t need to be anything more than that—is to discover through her how to help everyone else have babies, too.

After Julian’s death early in the film, however, Theo slowly discovers that the Fishes are no more innocuous with regard to Kee and her child than the government is. The Fishes who travel with Theo and Kee are actually going to betray both once they reach the south. They want to use the baby as a trigger for the revolution which will overthrow the fascist government and change society. The government forces, which are ruthlessly hunting down all Fishes, find out about Theo and Kee and hunt them, too—the hope of the world cannot come from the belly of a fugee.

The climactic battle between the Fishes and the government troops at the end of the film—after we’ve seen the decadence of the powerful, the sadness of mute immigrants being shuffled into concentration camps, and the birth of the new child, a scene in which Cuarón forces the viewer to endure the pangs of birth without the respite of a cut or a shift in camera angle—is the battle between two forces who believe in power more than they believe in the baby. They both wish to use the baby for their own plans for salvation.

Theo (and Cuarón) is humbler than they. The baby himself is the hope, because he is the sign that fundamentally changes our condition, and rescues us from our chaos. Only a new presence can pacify the violence, can generate, can give birth. Hope is flesh and blood. Cuarón’s story is a purgation which helps us to remember this truth.

Santiago Ramos is a graduate of Rockhurst University in Kansas City and has written for First Things (online), Commonweal, The Pitch, Traces, Image Journal and various blogs. He is currently studying toward a Ph.D. in Philosophy at Boston College.