THE BOOK OF LIFE
The Book of Life is part of the 2000 Seen By ... series of films funded by French production companies Le Sept Arte and Haut et Court wherein various international directors were each asked to offer their vision of the millennium. Others in this series include Canadas Last Night (1998), Taiwans The Hole (1998), Brazils Midnight (1998), Spains The First Night of My Life (1998), Belgiums The Wall (1998) and Life on Earth (1998) from Mali. Intriguingly, Hal Hartley was chosen as the American voice over a number of other more high profile directors.
Hartleys offering is a dark and witty take on the Second Coming. Hartley regular Martin Donovan, whose face always seems to radiate troubles too deeply bottled to ever be expressed, walks through with a serene impassiveness that seems to carry the whole weight of the world inside. In Hartleys sardonic interpretation, Martin Donovans Jesus throws a spanner in divine works by having second thoughts about opening the seals on the Book of Life (which is represented by a Mac Power Book) and deciding he wants to forgive everybody. At contrast is Thomas Jay Ryans thuggish Satan who seems modelled on and a dead ringer for Mickey Rourke in Barfly (1987) determined to pick up the last few souls before Judgement Day by offering winning lottery numbers to a patron in a bar.
The Book of Life is not one of Hal Hartleys best although a weak Hartley film is far better than many other directors best. The film is made on the cheap it has grainy almost monochrome photography and a lot of blurred motion camerawork as though it had been quickly shot on video and transferred to film and only reigns in at 63 minutes in length. Nevertheless, there are the characteristically droll Hartley throwaway lines packed away in the background that make for hilarious viewing. We should never have brought amateurs in, the lawyers curse as Jesus upsets Judgement Day, while their secretary answers the phone: Armageddon, Armageddon and Jehosophat how may I direct your call? Or Marys greeting Satan with an irritated Get your feet off the bedspread ... Well now that youre here, you may as well make yourself useful and open the champagne. The film ends with a voiceover that shows Hartley, of all people, on a surprisingly Utopian note about the millennium stretching ahead.
In the 00s, Hal Hartley has made several other ventures into genre cinema with the eccentric monster movie No Such Thing (2001) and the futuristic science-fiction film The Girl from Monday (2005).