In 1937 Germany aided Franco’s fascist rebels in the Spanish Civil War by bombing the Basque village of Guernica. Not too many people would have known this fact if it were not embodied in the fragmented cubist painting Guernica by Picasso. The fact that Picasso titled this piece Guernica tells us something about how we’re supposed to think about it. Consider what we would have thought about it if he titled it Madrid Rush Hour. We could think of reasons as to why that interpretation fits. But we understand what is invoked when we’re given a title that invokes fascism and violence.
Last week I watched Children of Men (2006) for the first time with a friend. Near the beginning of the film, we puzzled for a little bit over a painting that was featured in the background in one of the scenes. At first we only saw bits and pieces of it. Then we were shown the whole painting. When I realized these were images from Guernica, I understood what the entire film was about. Guernica is really the key to penetrating the entire film.
In the painting itself, the bull on the left seems to symbolize the brute force of Franco’s fascism and the unleashing of bestial nature. He hovers over a woman holding the broken body of her child. In Children of Men, the whole plot is based on the fact that one woman has the ability to save the world through the birth of a child. But she is under constant threat from the warring fascists. When the rest of humanity is witness to the child, they realize its salvific power and stop fighting briefly. In Guernica, that image echoes the theme of the Pieta, the sculpture by Michaelangelo Buonarroti, with the Virgin Mary at the centerpiece holding the broken body of Christ. By extension, Children of Men is suggesting parallels between Mary and the African woman who gave birth to the single child. Mary is a Jewish outcast living in an outcasted and Roman-occupied Palestine; the people of Guernica were Basque outcasts in Spanish society which was also occupied by fascists; the people of Africa are outcasts today and the woman in COM is an outcast in fascist-occupied Britain.
It’s also interesting that the original painting was done in black, white and brown instead of using vivid colors. The images reveal that humanity is chaotic, and that hope is a lost concept, a word that doesn’t signify anything positively meaningful. Or if it is meaningful, it’s negative. COM uses modern techniques in film to portray the negativity of human existence. It is a modern Guernica and a modern Pieta, and possibly interpreted through Gilles Deleuze who, in A Thousand Plateaus, wrote that the “body without organs” is the vast collections of drives that we have within ourselves that makes good and evil possible for every person. At the end of COM, the Joseph and Mary couple are floating around in an open sea, with no roots, no human nature, just a vast desert of nothingness. It is an attack on all Enlightenment and religious projects to solidify human nature, and instead restores us to our rootless, organ-less state of, as Deleuze said, “true freedom”.