Tikkun Magazine, March/April 2007
Two Dystopian Movies . . . and their Visions of Hope
By Katje Richstatter
Children of Men
WHAT DOES IT MEAN to be human? What is it that limits our humanity, and what causes it to flower? The need to find or create meaning seems to be one commonality of human existence—through storytelling, myth, or religion, we can connect to our core decency, a place untouched by the vagaries of the world. Recently, a cadre of Mexican directors—Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men), Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth) and Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu (Babel)—has taken on our global humanity, offering genre-defying and emotionally rich perspectives. Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth looks back to 1944 Spain, while Cuarón's Children of Men forwards to 2027 London, a police state that makes today look enviable. Both are dark but not despondent, and seem to offer a choice between humanity and civilization—in each there is an uneasy relationship between the two, from a wary truce to a complete estrangement.
Pan's Labyrinth is a fairy tale and political fable, set during the last throes of opposition to Franco's fascist rule of Spain. Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is a young girl who travels with her pregnant mother to an old mill and military outpost where her new stepfather, Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), is intent on annihilating the last of the Republican troops, who have taken refuge in the woods. There are two worlds in Pan's Labyrinth, the bleak political reality, and a fantasy populated by a fearful-looking faun (Doug Jones), fairies, and other creatures of an ancient, pre-Christian world, where Ofelia may be the incarnation of a long-lost princess.
The film is unambiguous in its characterizations of the humans—there is evil, undiluted Dickens-style evil (Captain Vidal), there is good (Ofelia, her mother, their allies, the rebel army), and there are innocents (her baby brother). Religion is on the side of evil; the priests cozy up to the steely fascists, offering faith as a salve against the horrors of life. The main offense of oppressive regimes is the eradication of choice among its citizens. And despite the heroic uprisings against such despotism, Franco eventually wins. But it seems that the answer to evil is not benevolence, but action. Ofelia alone is awake to the ambiguous, but preferable, world of nature, magic realism, and pagan gods—and ultimately that is where her redemption lies. Del Toro paints the natural and fantastical world in a lush green contrasted against the gray skies and uniform-blue wool of the human realm. The only colors that punctuate this dehumanized place are of blood and fire, administered by Captain Vidal and his henchmen much more generously than the rations of bread they are in charge of despensing.
Cuarón's Children of Men, based on the novel by P.D. James, is imagined in a similarly muted palette of crumbled grey stone and blue military camouflage. In 2027 London, the rest of the world has collapsed, infertility has been absolute for eighteen years, and the government is fighting against a flood of illegal refugees. Without the ability to reproduce, human extinction is imminent, and in this context it seems plausible—since it's clear that animals can still breed—that God's wrath toward humankind, or our own inability to leave genetics alone, might be the reason. Rations include both antidepressants and suicide pills, and citizens like Theo (Clive Owen) plod along, self-medicating, averting their eyes to the caged refugees, protesting religious zealots and random violence. Theo is brooding and indifferent at first, but is recruited by his former lover, Julian (Julianne Moore), to be part of a guerilla group called the Fishes, seeking freedom and rights of the "fugees." There is a class component to this struggle, with parallels to liberation theology movements, but it's clear that the resistance forces are plagued with the same cutthroat hierarchy as the dominant society. Theo is entrusted with transporting Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), who is miraculously pregnant—a fact that is revealed to him in a barn (manger). The religious allusions range from blatant to subtle, and Western (upon seeing Kee and her newborn, the most common response is either "Jesus Christ" or signing the cross) to Eastern (Kee's midwife chanting Tibetan mantras) expressions. Kee's child is the last hope for human survival, a spark that transforms Theo, who commits his whole self—running barefoot (literally) over the rubble—to help her escape. And though organized religion is mostly portrayed as reactionary—the two sects of protesters are the "Renouncers" and "Repenters"—the quest itself might suggest something different. The citizens of Children of Men are disconnected from nature and themselves, a split that suggests a spiritual crisis, and a yearning to return to the basics: no killing, stealing, lying or coveting? Or better yet, the healing values of tolerance, faith, brotherly love, and altruism.
Within our contemporary political despair, each film can be read as both a mirror and an alarm, reflecting what some see as hopeless, or hopelessly complicated by war, immigration struggles, and environmental degradation. Early in Children of Men, in a conversation between Theo and Jasper (Michael Caine), an old friend who has retreated to his house in the woods, Theo sums up his life as, "woke up, felt like shit, went to work." Unfortunately, that is a common plight today, resulting in widespread apathy or resigned disgust. There has to be more to life, these films seem to be shouting. Given that there will be oppression, bigotry, and small-mindedness in some form as long as there are political systems, how does one connect to a deeper, and more universal, spirit? In Pan's Labyrinth the spirit lies in the ancient, earthy tales of moral responsibility, but also in the hearts of the rebels who refuse to obey an unjust system. In Children of Men, the rulers and guardians of oppression, as in a futuristic Animal Farm, do not want the citizens to realize their collective power, but one infant could reunite them with their own humanity and each other. In both films we are implored by example not to look away, but to witness the suffering and the mysteries of the world.
Katje Richstatter is a fiction and culture writer whose work has appeared in Punk Planet, SOMA, the SF Bay Guardian, and Turning Wheel.
Richstatter, Katje. 2007. Two Dystopian Movies . . . and their Visions of Hope [Review of the films Pan's Labyrinth and Children of Men]. Tikkun 22(2): 78.