Children of Men. 2006. Alfonso Cuarón, director. Mexico.
In his review of Babel, Roger Ebert describes its filmmaker as one of three men representing the “New Mexican Cinema”. Ebert notes how, in the past, a country might suddenly produce a brilliant generation of filmmakers and he expresses his view that, in the present, such a flowering is occurring in Mexico. Babel, Pan’s Labyrinth and Children of Men were three Mexican pictures released in the same year and each, in my opinion, is a near masterpiece.
Children of Men begins with news reporting the death of “Baby Diego”. Far from being a baby, Diego was an eighteen year old man and had the distinction of being the youngest person on the planet. The human race, inexplicably, has become infertile. In the novel by P.D. James – upon which this adaptation has been based – one character writes of the despair which has set in: “The world did not give up hope until the generation born in 1995 reached sexual maturity. When testing was complete and not one could produce fertile sperm, we knew that this was the end of Homo sapiens”.
One region has withstood the anarchy which has collapsed other societies. In doing so, however, England has become a fascist state and one xenophobic toward non-native persons dwelling within its borders. The Slovene Slavoj Žižek observes how situating Children of Men in a dystopian England communicates a particularly pronounced despair. Even England has succumbed; a country which, historically, had not required a constitution given its ability to rely on the substance of its traditions. The abuses of the government are protested by a movement whose leader recruits an old partner into assisting. Into this context the narrative of Children of Men unfolds.
Perhaps the interest of Children of Men does lie in the phenomenon of biological infertility. Perhaps, though, this biological infertility among persons serves as a pretext for the spiritual infertility in one character who must journey toward a more empathic stance. Perhaps the movement of this character becomes, as Žižek suggests, a prism through which the despair of a wider community is communicated.
In reference to the “tragic sense of life”, The Spanish Miguel de Unamuno notes how, in Christianity, the yearning for another life finds expression in the conviction that Jesus Christ did not remain dead; that God raised Jesus as he will us. Many seem to experience something of the immortality they desire through generative expressions like having children. This yearning has been stripped from the imaginations of those living in the dystopian world of Children of Men. A realization follows that there is nothing to live for beyond the immediate and a variety of coping mechanisms and distractions emerge. Theo asks one character what keeps him going knowing that there will soon not be one living person. The response: “I just don’t think about it”.
Some characters, however, whisper of a “Human Project”. As to whether the Human Project exists, this seems a question in dispute. Theo shows himself disposed toward its nonexistence. He finds this reinforced when those who had given him assurance about the Human Project admit that no contact has been made. Nonetheless, Theo sets sail toward this possibly existing Human Project.
Ms. James, I think, would appreciate the symbol of the boat which, if I remember correctly, filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón has inserted. Having a boat unfastened from that to which it is tied, and having a boat as that which transports persons to the possibly existing Human Project, can symbolize faith. James is a Christian and Martin Luther actually uses the image of a boat to describe the phenomenon of faith. It is one thing to see a boat, or to assess its reliability, but quite another to step onto that boat. That, for Luther, is faith. In Children of Men, even that image of the hanging fog through which the boat travels in search of that which it cannot see, hearkens to something of the leap of faith imaged by Kierkegaard. Faith, to those who have faith, appears validated in Children of Men. I believe that the imaging of a boat – which Cuarón has inserted – contributes to that validation.
I struggle then to see how Žižek can present this adaptation as a “materialist subversion” of a “Christian parable of resuscitation”. Others, with less admiration, take issue with Cuarón supposedly stripping Christian elements from an intentionally Christian novel. I do not see validity in these assessments. The adaptation of Cuarón, I am convinced, is not an act of vandalism. It has been several years since I read Children of Men, and while I remember the novel being different than the adaptation, the significance of such differences are being overestimated.
Cuarón claims that James saw the film and was “proud” to be associated with the project. She should be. The Christian imagery, which I gather is important to her, remains intact. Kee employs cruder language than is often attributed to Mary of Nazareth, but both the adaptation of Children of Men and traditional imaging of the birth of Jesus have barns or mangers in common, inns or hotels toward which the abused have been directed by oppressive governments, and both have a vulnerable pregnant younger woman being protected by an older male.
In what is perhaps the most beautiful scene from Children of Men, the “holy family” walks through a war-zone. Though only for a moment, warriors stand still. Fighting does resume but that reality is anti-climactic. With one birth, the world has begun again. That is precisely what Christians believe happened when Jesus Christ was born.
“Only films like these,” Žižek writes, can “guarantee that cinema as art will survive”. I share his appreciation for this picture (even though I do think that this adaptation does more respect to the interests of Ms. James than Žižek supposes).
Children of Men has an MPAA rating of R for “strong violence, language, some drug use and brief nudity”.