Masquerading as a science fiction film, Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men is set in 2027 when, for reasons unknown, after a series of wars and disasters and plagues, women worldwide are no longer able to conceive. In its bold opening scene, Theo (Clive Owen), an alcoholic onetime activist, witnesses a crowd in a café weeping over the TV news coverage of the death of an 18-year-old -- the world's youngest person. A few seconds later on Fleet Street -- a London with grit but without glamour, dirtied as if by another century's version of the Blitz -- a terrorist bomb detonates. Julian (Julianne Moore), a former lover, turns up, dragging Theo into a battle for the future of other failed, failing cities; he must protect a female "fugee," a woman (Claire-Hope Ashitey) who is somehow pregnant, on her way to sanctuary. Does the government want her dead? What about the masses of angry anarchists?
As intimate as Cuarón's other, more conventional road movie Y Tu Mamá También, Children of Men (opening Christmas Day in New York) is filled with elegant metaphors for how countries and their ideologies shape how immigrants and refugees are treated in Europe and the United States. (It also boasts a witty, reflective subplot with Michael Caine as an old friend, who, in his 40s way back in the early 2000s, had been protesting the UK involvement in the Iraq War.) But as Cuarón has shown in movies like the densely detailed Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, he's cerebral but still emotional; his latest film is keenly close to silent cinema, with geometry and décor of uncommon precision, occasional explosions and an appreciation of the traveling shot that would please Max Ophüls.
There is a welter of eminent influences, borrowings and outright lifts in Cuarón's arsenal. I had a few movies in mind: the verisimilitude of The Battle of Algiers; master shots reminiscent of Spirit of the Beehive, a 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, would describe as being perfectly achieved in every fathomable fashion?
He cut a big grin. "Oh, I have a bunch of them," he said. "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." Indeed, I noted, there are hints of city-versus-country in Children of Men that gain from comparison, and the film's climax would be unthinkable without the German's example. He laughed. "Man! You know Sunrise! That's good."
How about Battle of Algiers? "Well, OK, so you see where I rip everything off," he said. "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 handheld, everything was kind of stiff. Funny enough, it was very stiff, because [of 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."
In interviews coming over from the UK, a phrase of Cuarón's that pops up more than once is that "Narrative is the poison of cinema." With forceful production design that feels detailed but not slick like a page from a furnishings catalog, Cuarón's decors tell the story better than reams of dialogue. The film demonstrates that the director wants to tell stories by the way people live and move in their spaces -- the contents of the frame are transparent, but they hold weight.
"What I hate is when cinema is hostage of narrative," he told me. "Then I say, 'Come on -- 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 come on, leave cinema alone! Let cinema breathe, in which narrative is an element of the cinematic experience, but it's [just] 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."
Yet his work with the Harry Potter installment shows he's not afraid of the multimillion-dollar epic. "I'm not saying that narrative [isn't valuable], of course," Cuarón said. "But it's not only in cinema. I think in our culture, this culture is over-narratized. Everything is [built] on the content of a narrative. Politicians tell you narratives all the time. Then we are missing one of the biggest, probably something more powerful than narrative [to] humans -- that is symbols. The reading of symbols. Not only the understanding of narrative. People tell you that narrative is something organically human. Yes. But even more? The reading of symbols. The co-reference of things, that even since you see the early paintings in caves. Yeah, there's a narrative there, but more than that, there's movement. And there are symbolic elements that they were relating. It's not like they did a comic strip of what happened with hunters."
Cuarón doesn't aim to simplify, however, wanting instead to honor the struggle to be concrete yet remain enigmatic -- like a silent movie. He invoked his compatriot and friend Guillermo Del Toro's upcoming Spanish Civil War fairy tale Pan's Labyrinth as a point of reference. "In Guillermo['s film], you follow story, you follow [psychology], but what really matters are the thematic metaphors he's working with all the time. It's something that cinema -- particularly silent cinema -- had so strongly before the big explosion -- the big September 11 of sound -- happened to cinema! They achieved an amazing mastery of communicating without language. Cinema caught up, but with the arrival of sound, it became about people talking and telling stories and singing.
"It's so damn gratifying," he continued. "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. They want explanations, they want exposition and they want political postures. 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."
Ray Pride is the editor of Movie City Indie.
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