Alfonso Cuarón can do no wrong.
Well, all right, he probably can and surely will — but in the meantime, I have to say his movies do not suck. First he got himself seriously noticed with the exploits of two good friends and a very wlling lady in Y tu Mamá También; after that he shifted gears, some could argue very radically, in taking on the third Harry Potter film.* Under his guidance we ended up with a movie that gently led its characters into young adulthood without all the eye-rolling and booger jokes that an unsubtle clod like Chris Columbus would surely have used.
That is, when that third HP movie opened up, the characters were as Columbus had made them: Sorta dorky. By the time it was over, they were all substantially and irrevocably changed, and it was done so damn gracefully that it’s only in restrospect you really see it.
So this weekend I took in his latest, Children of Men, and left the theater feeling something I rarely ever do: Genuinely, profoundly affected.
I don’t really want to go too much into the story here, because it might be better to see this movie with as few preconceptions as possible, just to make it a fairly fresh experience. The time frame for the film is a little over 20 years in the future; humans have become infertile; a hopeless world has begun imploding; suicide kits are freely available for purchase.
Cuarón’s conceptual genius here is his extraordinarily long takes. There’s a very long series of events that take place in a car. The camera remains inside the car during most of these events, then gets out and is left behind as the car drives off. It’s striking and very effective, keeping you tautly involved in everything going on. A later, much longer sequence set in a ruined ghetto is even more immersive.
Beyond that, though, Cuarón paints a world that has lost hope — not because it’s sliding into ecological collapse, but because there simply are no more children being born, and everyone alive knows that humanity has sixty years or so left to it before the very last person dies, alone and unmourned by anyone else. It’s just not possible for me to express the pervasive sense of doom that hangs over the movie or the way it insinuated itself into me; I saw the film Saturday and am still haunted by it, particularly by one scene involving Michael Caine and a lost-sounding cover of Ruby Tuesday performed by Franco Battiato.
Beyond that are other comments made in other reviews, particularly about the half-assed revolutionary/terrorist groups which have all basically lost their way, lost focus — lost even a purpose to exist any longer except to foment chaos. The naked realism of cows incinerated in brackish fields to prevent disease or Mad Cow infection, the extraordinary blend of animated advertising signs with random terrorism bombings and the directionless, baseless, faithless world that still somehow manages to contain ethical, good people provide a mix of ideas and images too stark to relish, yet too intense to ignore.
Throughout the movie there are also subtle hints at religious iconography, though here Cuarón plays it with extreme subtlety. The only really obvious one was the girl in the barn. (See it and you’ll know what I mean.) All that was lacking was straw. Oh, and I guess Joseph — though perhaps in a way Clive Owen filled that role.
Without question, Children of Men is a deeply evocative film, one that will leave you with a lot to mull over long after you’ve left the theater. Alfonso Cuarón is an authentic master and we need a few more like him.
* Though … again … two good friends and a girl … hmm.
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