Where—and who—will you be in twenty years?
The planet, too: Alfonso Cuarón’s intense, brilliant “Children of Men” masquerades as a science-fiction film set in 2027 when, for reasons unspecified, after wars and disasters and plagues, women worldwide can no longer conceive. In a bold opening scene, Theo (Clive Owen), an alcoholic onetime activist, now-dulled bureaucrat, witnesses a crowd in a café weeping over the televised death of 18-year-old “Baby Diego,” the “world’s youngest person.” A few seconds later on the streets of London, with grit but without glamour, dirtied as if by a new century’s version of the Blitz, a terrorist bomb detonates, spilling Theo’s coffee and the blood of everyone in the cafe. Julian (Julianne Moore), a former lover, turns up, dragging Theo into a battle for the future of other failed, failing cities: Theo must protect a female “fugee,” a woman (Claire-Hope Ashitey) who is pregnant, on her way to sanctuary. Does the government want her dead? The masses of angry anarchists? And how can you miss the religious imagery throughout? (“Children of Men” also boasts a witty, reflective subplot with Michael Caine as a forest-dwelling cohort, who, in his forties, way back in the early 2000s, protested UK involvement in the Iraq War.) As intimate as “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” and also a road movie, “Children of Men” is rich with elegant metaphors for how countries and their ideologies shape how immigrants and refugees are treated in Europe and the U.S. But as Cuarón has shown in movies like the densely detailed “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” he can be a cerebral storyteller but still be emotional. His latest film, which might be a masterpiece, is keenly close to silent cinema, geometry and décor of uncommon precision, with occasional explosions, and repeated invocations of the sustained traveling shot that would please Max Ophüls.
There are a welter of eminent influences, borrowings and outright lifts in Cuarón’s arsenal: the adrenalized verisimilitude of “Battle of Algiers”; master shots reminiscent of “Spirit of the Beehive”; a seaside city as blasted as Hue in “Full Metal Jacket,” the perfection of “Sunrise.” Was there a single movie that he, as a director and true cineaste, I challenged him, a single film that he would describe as being perfectly achieved in every fathomable fashion? He cuts a big grin. “Oh, I have a bunch of them. I am almost afraid to say, then you have to keep on going! No, that’s the beauty of cinema, man. There are amazing masterpieces. I am almost afraid to unleash the demon. Your interview is going to be a laundry list of amazing films. Completely, fully fulfilled. I’ll say just ‘Sunrise.’” There are hints of “Sunrise”’s city-versus-country dialectic in “Children of Men” that gain from comparison, and the movie’s climax would be unthinkable without the German’s example.
How about “Battle of Algiers”? “Well, okay, so you see where I rip everything off. That’s good! I love ‘Battle of Algiers.’ That was a big point of departure. But it’s different; Pontecorvo was honoring the technology of his times. It was not hand-held; everything was kind of stiff. Funny enough, it was very stiff, because [large] 35mm cameras and pretty much on tripods. We were trying just to take the same approach but as with the technologies of today. We shot in 35, but with the mobility of a video camera.”
A favored phrase of Cuarón’s is that “narrative is the poison of cinema.” With forceful, detailed production design that is never slick like a page from a furnishings catalog, the director’s decors tell the story better than reams of dialogue. “I’m so sick of exposition, I’m so sick of people seeming to go to the movies to get explanations. I just think that they are missing the point of cinema. When I said that narrative is the poison of cinema, that is when my friend Guillermo del Toro [“Pan’s Labyrinth”] will say, ‘You’re becoming Taliban!’”
“Children of Men” tells stories by the way his characters live and move in their spaces. “What I hate is when cinema is hostage of narrative. Then I say, ‘C’mon don’t be lazy, read a book. If you want to see performances, go to the theater, it’s fantastic, it’s an actor’s medium there. And a dramatic medium, at least conventional theater. But c’mon… Leave cinema alone!’” Cuarón says, in a breathless stream. “Let cinema breathe, in which narrative is an element of the cinematic experience, but it’s an element, as acting is an element, cinematography is an element, music and decors, those are elements. But right now? Cinema becomes just about seeing illustrated stories as opposed to engaging audiences in an experience in which you don’t explain much. You try to explain as little as possible and to create an eloquence to what you are telling, but at the same time, allowing audiences to fill the blanks. Y’know? I think that audiences and humans are amazing readers of symbols, even if it’s not in a conscious [way]. That’s something that makes cinema an accessible language. We’re losing more and more to narrative.”
But Cuarón says he is hopeful for the future, even if he’s pessimistic about the present. “It’s so damn gratifying…the principle of cinema is that you are looking at that screen. A lot of reviewers nowadays, they fall into that vice, they want stories… But why does cinema have to be a medium for making political statements as opposed to presenting facts, presenting elements and then you making your own conclusions. Even if they are elusive. There’s nothing more beautiful than elusiveness in cinema.”
“Children of Men” opens Christmas Day, 2006.