Tuesday, July 24, 2007


BOOK OF LIFE (1998, France/USA, Hal Hartley)
I could never get used to that part of the job. The power and the glory. The threat of divine vengeance. But I persevered. I was about my Father’s business. It was the morning of December 31st, 1999 when I returned, at last, to judge the living and the dead. Though still, and perhaps always, I had my doubts.

Doesn’t the Bible say Jesus’ return will be nothing like anybody expects? So maybe this is the most biblical Second Coming picture of them all. He flies into La Guardia with PJ Harvey – er, Mary Magdalene – at his side, forgiving people and marveling at Manhattan like a Midwestern tourist: “I love this town!” He’s en route to a meeting with his father’s – er, Father’s – lawyers, Armageddon, Armageddon & Jehosaphat, who’ve drawn up the papers for the legal separation of the quick and the dead. But when he picks up the PowerBook of Life from the locker of the beast (#666), he’s got serious second thoughts about the second coming. Should he really click on that icon and open the final three of those seven famous seals?

There’s a distinctive Hal Hartley vibe: self-consciously clever, tinged with almost-melancholy, hip, flip, earnest. If you like it, you’ll love BOOK OF LIFE, my own favorite. Partly because at 63 minutes it doesn’t overstay its welcome, and partly because, surprisingly enough, it provokes real eschatological, not to mention soteriological, questions. (Hey. I have a Masters Degree....)

The devil – suave, rumpled, black suit, blood red shirt – quotes scripture as he harvests a couple last souls before Revelation 12:12 kicks in: “The devil has come down to you with great wrath because he knows that his time is short. Not my favorite passage.” He gets a barfly to bet his girlfriend’s soul on a horserace: it’s not that hard, the guy doesn’t believe people have souls (the devil rolls his eyes: he’s heard that one before, why do they make it so easy?), so what’s to lose? Besides, he’s a compulsive gambler. He gains the world but loses Edie’s soul, so right away he needs Jesus. Well, who doesn’t.

This Jesus is as uneasy with the idea of Final Judgment as I am: he doesn’t want to consign anybody to eternal torment, he just plain likes people too much, the good ones and the bad ones. I love how Hartley takes his crazy premise and plays it right through to its apparently logical conclusion. Do only good people escape divine judgment? Does anybody deserve eternal judgment? Does everybody deserve forgiveness?

The movie also shows the absurdity of our all-too-common picture of Grumpy God and Gentle Jesus, where the Son sacrificed himself to use up the Father’s wrath. So, how are the two of them one? And what about the whole “God is love” thing? There’s a moment late in the film when the devil offers God’s attorneys something like a partnership plan, and I couldn’t help remembering that the Bible identifies Satan, not God, as “the accuser.” It’s not hard to picture a happy (if litigious) partnership between His Satanic Majesty and the angry God of BOOK OF LIFE – and, if we admit it, of the secret fears of so many of us. (But what if Jesus was sacrificed to appease mankind’s wrath, not God’s? I think Hal would like Rene Girard.)

Whew. Heady stuff for so slight a film. It’s that kind of movie. Where the world ends neither with a bang nor a whimper, but a wry, affectionate grin.


Available at Videomatica

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