The new note in films, both last year and this, seems to be dystopic. In a marked shift of mood, filmmakers from the United States and abroad are following the premise that things broadly taken are grim and are going south, fast. Even Rocky, that emblem of triumph against all odds, in his latest incarnation (Rocky Balboa) finds his life shambling, his money gone, his wife dead, his son far distant, and his ox of a body failing. The only question for him now is how much pain of soul and body he can endure. The prospects are not so good, just a sort of crucifixion; indeed, there is more than a little similarity between the Rocky of 2006 and the Jesus of 2003 offered up by Mel Gibson in The Passion of the Christ. The perennial buoyant, self-sufficient jingoism of the American spirit seems to be flagging; the little engine that could is running down.
Before we turn to the pictures of 2006, we should recall that those of 2005 were less than a happy lot. Brokeback Mountain gave a rendering in small of the bad winds of gender-crossed love. The brilliant Capote laid bare the hell-bent cupidity of genius and fame. In tracing the vengeful aftermath of terrorism at the 1972 Olympic Games, Steven Spielberg's Munich detailed the futility that seems imbedded in the ruthlessly bloody cycle of carnage that is Middle Eastern politics. The Edward R. Murrow bio-pic, Good Night, and Good Luck, made its lead character the grim prophet of the ever-mounting banality of commercial television. The surprise best-picture winner at last year's Academy Awards, Paul Haggis's Crash, showed enmity gone wild until it engulfs the whole of society, rich and poor, white, black, and everybody else, only to end in an unforeseen, and not especially convincing, moment of grace. Why this moment came amidst snow rather than fire, though, remains a mystery, for the latter seems more appropriate to the woe and sorrow the film shows mortals contriving for one another. The great overlooked film of 2005 was Fernando Meirelles's The Constant Gardener, based on John Le CarrÃ©'s brilliant novel of the perfidy wrought by international pharmaceuticals testing drugs in Africa. Similar global chicanery, this time involving petroleum, formed the center of Syriana, a stark and riveting tale that hopscotched its audience around the world, from D.C. to the empty deserts of the Middle East.
Such laments of global cravenness were echoed in 2006 in the star-laden adventure tale of the African diamond trade, Blood Diamond. The year on the screen spiraled off from there. Martin Scorsese's The Departed, the best thing he's done in years, ends about as badly as can be, with death's vile rain falling on the just and unjust. Even more to the point is Clint Eastwood's two-part meditation on the World War II battle for the Pacific atoll Iwo Jima. Flags of Our Fathers traces the circumstances and aftermath of the famous flag-raising photo by following ordinary GIs (including the well-known Ira Hayes of song legend) to see what both combat and the American government did to them. Clint Eastwood's accomplishment is so stunning, both morally and cinematically, that he might now be North America's greatest living filmmaker.
Even better is Letters from Iwo Jima
which displays the sorrow and courage of the small force of Japanese soldiers who were simply told to die defending that sliver of volcano. In the final analysis, the two sets of war producers differ little from each other, sending their children to suffer and die as their respective war machines grind and spew. Eastwood, now 76 and going strong, has devoted the last fifteen years, beginning with his masterpiece Unforgiven
(1992), to directing films that examine responsibility and guilt, and especially the question of what fathers do to children. It is so stunning an accomplishment, both morally and cinematically, that some eminences now regard Eastwood as North America's greatest living filmmaker. France just inducted him into the Legion of Honor.
In looking closely at the past with Eastwood we see the future--and wonder what has changed that we should have hope, come what may. Indeed, the best filmmakers around these days, those both smart and adept, have joined a chorus of lament for the human future, a long and somber brooding upon historical fatality, like Shakespeare's tragedies, with only the slightest note of hopefulness. The Old Testament at its grimmest looks cheery compared to this body of work. The irony of modernism persists: the more techno-power we've assembled, the more able we seem to do ourselves in. We await a sure and final train wreck, wondering only whether it will come by express or commuter.
A stunning picture of a calamitous future comes in the visual splendor, dire though it is, of Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men, based on the uncharacteristic futuristic novel of the same title published by the splendid British crime novelist P. D. James in 1992. The place is London, the year 2027, and the world's youngest person, age eighteen, has just died. For reasons that remain entirely mysterious, the males of the world, all of them, seem to have gone infertile, and the resulting cultural meltdown has turned England, for one, to xenophobic hysteria. A fascistic police state rounds up, incarcerates, and rather freely tortures anyone in the least "different," whether ethnically or politically. The film's literal portraits of social chaos and fear, rendered in rich, though passing detail, give the film its considerable scariness even more than does the plot or the viewer's concern for what might happen to individual characters. The sky is an unremitting gray, and daylight dim, even in full sun in the countryside (thank cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki). Grime, dirt, litter, and decay dominate the material world. The human world has devolved to quiet desperation in extremis, and suicide drugs have become a major commodity. The induction center of a government refugee "haven" casually tortures new arrivals, scenes (some directly copying Abu Ghraib) which the audience glimpses via a passing bus. That seacoast city, home now for thousands of exiles, runs by barely contained barbarism, and the government intends to level it, blot it out, eliminating every living creature.
Through this pervasive gloom we follow Theo Faron (Clive Owen), a numbedout middle-aged bureaucrat who mourns his dying world and his own dead son. (In James' novel he's a burned-out history professor with no students to teach, save for night classes of the middle-aged curious.) Till, that is, he is one day abducted by an illegal activist group that wants him to procure travel documents for a young black woman, Kee, a former prostitute. Their persuasive powers are great, led as they are by Julian (Julianne Moore), Faron's old girlfriend and mother of his son, and equipped as they are with an ample supply of weaponry. Faron remains uninterested till the mysterious young black woman shows her burgeoning abdomen, for she is, mysteriously, wondrously, very much with child. In these worlds, replete though they may be with splendorous techno-wonders, solace and light come sparely, if at all. The more the characters contrive to numb and divert, the less they have.
The significance of this--or any--child disrupts Faron's insularity, and everybody else's to boot, for there is a violent, desperate race among rival forces to grab this woman. Faron's group wants her delivered out of the country to a kind of Greenpeace organization. What it takes to get Kee out of the country--a lot of chase and bang-bang, though done superbly--consumes rather too much time at the expense of developing sufficient story about these individual people, the element needed to make this a deeply consequential film. In short, what the filmmakers offer is good, but they rather ill mixed the pot in concocting the central enticements of the story. Still, what we see of the sterility that plagues the land seems a likely physiological result of the dis-spiriting of the modern world, a prospect that James painstakingly develops in her much superior novel. The one piece that the film perhaps carries off better than the novel is to toll the meaning of a new, miraculous birth, when the sound of a baby's cry stills a fire-fight.
And then there's Babel, whose name more than foretells the thematic substance of the film. The story makes its point with brutal but poignant force, just the sort of thing one might expect from Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, the pair responsible for the searing 21 Grams (2003) and Amores Perros (2000). Arriaga also wrote the remarkable The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005), Tommy Lee Jones's directorial debut in which he also starred, along with his daughter and, interestingly, his cattle. All these films press through the ragged depths of suffering and error toward the sort of wild, wholly unexpected wash of grace that shows up in Flannery O'Connor or Walker Percy. In Babel, Inarritu and Arriaga go global, so to speak, threading a tale of harrowing inadvertence from North Africa to North America to Japan and dramatizing the extent to which people of all sorts are not simply disconnected but seem wholly severed from themselves and the others nearest them.
We begin in the mountainous Moroccan outback, where a goat-herder gives his sons a rifle to shoot the mangy dogs that prey on his goats. The rifle he bought from a hunting-guide friend, who received it as a gift from a Japanese businessman client. The boys shoot the rifle in play at a distant bus in the valley below. As sometimes happens against all odds, calamity follows; the bullet smashes the bus window and pierces the neck of tourist Susan (Cate Blanchett), who is on a reparative sojourn with husband Richard (Brad Pitt). He must then try to get medical care in the middle of a communications nowhere. In some ways, their children, back home in San Diego with a Mexican nanny (the wonderful Adrianna Barraza), fall into worse straits when, her sub failing to show, she takes them into Mexico to attend her son's wedding. In Japan, the wealthy businessman hunter who originally gave away the gun contends with his deaf, desperately lonely teenage daughter as both suffer the recent suicide of their wife and mother. The two hours and twenty minutes of film spend little time (perhaps only a fifth) with the fancy tourist couple, despite what the North American trailers suggest, and they are perhaps the least interesting of the lot. For the rest, mishap follows mistake down to disaster upon disaster, ending in enormous woe. Put another way, the film details the grief that falls upon us all, no matter one's place on the globe, geographically or economically. Nothing insulates. As the Arriaga-Inarritu team has now displayed in film after film, we are all bound up tight in webs we barely perceive, webs defined by frailty, mutuality, and even a crazy kind of exacting grace. Not since the remarkable work--also remarkably similar, as to theme--of the Polish filmmaking team of Krzysztof Piesiewicz and the late Krzysztof Kieslowski have we seen the like.
In a letter to a friend, Franz Kafka asserted that art should be "the ice-axe" that "melts the sea frozen inside us." The stellar work of these Mexican filmmakers Cuaron, Arriaga, and Inarritu (adding to them Guillermo del Toro of Pan's Labyrinth) brings to the screen both a visual and a narrative fierceness that displays humankind in all of its nakedness as it scrambles about, vulnerable and shuddering, for the narcotic that will dull its sense of lostness and futility. In these worlds, replete though they may be with splendorous techno-wonders, solace and light come sparely, if at all, and the more the characters contrive to numb and divert, the less they have. It is no wonder, then, that in these dire straits something as tiny as an infant's cry--"The word within a word, unable to speak a word,/Swaddled with darkness" (T. S. Eliot, "Gerontion")-- still grabs deep with its crazy hint of the unlikeliest hope of all.
Roy Anker is a professor of English at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.