Alfonso Cuaron’s “Children of Men” opens on news reports of the chaos that has consumed the world in 2027. We soon discover humanity is suffering from an infertility crisis and that the U.K. is seemingly the only stable nation left. The film adopts an apocalyptic frame of mind as war zones of extraordinary plausibility are depicted, the streets are lined with police officers, and thousands of refugees are seen in cages. The state of the world is quickly established within the first two minutes of the film when the very coffee shop the protagonist, Theo, just walked out of explodes. From it emerges a woman carrying her own detached arm. Cuaron’s film is a masterpiece not only because of its ability to shock, but also due to the extraordinary camerawork, attention to detail, and references made to our own world throughout the film.
Children of men is full of long takes that assist in creating a sense of authenticity in the film. Cuaron uses them in almost all of his films and they prove to be a treacherous feat to accomplish. These sequences require perfect orchestration between actors, cameramen, the gunfire, and explosions. The longest single-shot sequence in the film is of Theo running through the battle of the refugee camp that lasted for roughly six and a half minutes. Another notable long take is the car ambush scene which reportedly took 12 days to get just right. The extra time and effort put into these scenes is not lost, instead it adds to the emotion of the scene. These shots amplify the tension of the scene because the camera is never cutting away from the action. For example, we see everything the characters in the car scene see and are then immersed in the chaos and claustrophobia it entails. Everything is in real time as the characters experience it and this only heightens our own reactions to the action.
Another impressive task Cuaron tackled was the attention to detail in the film, largely in regards to its religious references. Cuaron even stated, “Not a single frame of this film can go by without making a comment on the state of things. So everything became a reference … The exercise was to transcend not only reality, but also to cross-reference within the film to the spiritual themes of the film.” The title of the original book the film was based on came from a section of the bible that reads, “Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return, ye children of men.” Theo and Kee can even be likened to Joseph and Mary as a shot of them with Kee’s baby resembles portraits of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus Christ. Her reveal of her pregnancy to Theo is reminiscent of the nativity scene and when asked about who the father may be, Kee jokes that she is a virgin.
Even more significant than the religious references made in the film are the references made to our own world today. In the film, refugees are rounded up and thrown in cages, eerily similar to the crisis taking place at our own Southern border currently. These scenes even reference Hitler’s concentration camps as the song “Arbeit Macht Frei” plays while Theo, Miriam, and Kee are on the refugee bus. This phrase was placed over the entrances to a number of Nazi concentration camps and in German translates to “work sets you free.” Another striking reference was that of the woman holding her dead son in her arms during the battle scene at the refugee camp. This shot was taken in reference to a photograph, La Pieta Du Kosovo (1990) shot by Georges Merillon that emerged from the Balkan War of a woman crying while holding the corpse of her son. In fact, when the photographer shot this he was referencing La Pieta, the Michelangelo sculpture of Mary holding the corpse of Jesus. This sculpture is also referenced by Theo’s brother as he explains he could not save it while standing in front of another one of Michelangelo’s sculptures, the statue of David. Again, we see the image of a wailing woman holding her child in Picasso’s Guernica that hung behind Theo while he was having dinner with his brother. Cuaron’s painstaking attention to detail creates a whole new layer of relevance to today’s world. Despite being made over a decade ago, the film continues to succesfully draw haunting parallels to our own society.