MPAA Rating: PG
USCCB Rating: A-II
Reel Rating: (4 reels out of 5)
At the beginning of Extraordinary Synod three weeks ago, 20th Century Fox released Gone Girl (see my CWR review, “Fincher’s Nightmare”), a disturbing tale of murder, intrigue, and cable news punditry, all centered around the idea that marriage is inherently destructive. At the Synod’s close, this same studio released a movie that is the polar opposite, a moving love story that demonstrates the importance of family and the communion of saints, both living and dead.
The Book of Life is marvel to behold, a cinematic experience that bedazzles the viewer with sharp writing, amazing voice performances, beautiful songs, and some of the most stunning cinematography of the year. Although its strange spiritual elements may make it not entirely child friendly, it is the perfect date movie. Just don’t forget the horchata.
The tale begins in classic fashion, with two dashing young friends in love with the same woman. Manolo (Diego Luna) is a sensitive bullfighter who wants to be a musician while Joaquín (Channing Tatum, in perhaps his best role) is a swashbuckling soldier who roams the countryside driving out bandits. Maria (Zoe Saldaña) loves them both but is not particularly interested in settling down. The two gods of the afterlife, Le Muerte (Kate del Castillo) and Xibalba (Ron Pearlman), make a wager to see which of the young men will marry Maria and pursue various schemes to support their candidate. But things go sour when one of the gods cheats on the deal, causing one character to make an Orphean descent into the Underworld to set things right.
The most spectacular element of The Book of Life is the creation of a Universe that is both fantastical and consistent. This is a film that celebrates Mexican culture and folklore from the music (Mariachi) to the colors (vibrant) to little details such as Xibalba’s eyes, which are tiny skulls. There are multiple love stories and plot lines that weave seamlessly in and out of the narrative, supported by the atmosphere of the film. When a man plucks petals while thinking of his loved one, they fall as little hearts. When the antagonist appears, he is literally larger than life. As a visual experience, it’s the most compelling film since Life of Pi and is well worth the price to view in 3D.
The love discussed in The Book of Life is true love, a love that is always seen in the context of marriage. It’s so refreshing to see a children’s film where romance is based on sacrifice and hardship rather than simply affection. In order to win Maria’s hand, both Manolo and Joaquín will need to set aside childish notions and become better men, doing what is right regardless of their personal feelings for Maria. This love also includes family members—and not just those among the living.
It all starts in a cemetery on All Souls Day, celebrated in Mexico as “the Day of the Dead,” where Manolo’s father explains the importance of remembering one’s ancestors. Indeed, the most touching moments involve not Maria but the reunion of several people with their dearly departed. This is the true meaning of Halloween, praying for dead and rejoicing in the hope of the resurrection.
The only troubling aspect is some fairly strong syncretism, accurately reflecting challenges present in Hispanic Catholicism. While two pagan deities play central roles, there is also a theistic, God-like character called the Candle Maker (voiced by Ice Cube, of all people) who keeps everyone’s story in the Book of Life and serves as a mediator between worlds. While there is no serious discussion of Christianity, there is plenty of Catholic imagery, including a priest and several nuns (although Our Lady of Guadeloupe is sadly relegated to a single background shot).
All this is mixed together with some of the director’s own ideas to create a fun if bizarre cosmology. This kind of pagan imagery can be problematic if handled poorly, yet it is clearly a fantastical story about values rather than promoting theological doctrines about the nature of God and Heaven. That being said, parents need to assess the spiritual maturity of their own children before allowing them to see it. This is especially important for Latin American families as Le Muerte is obviously influenced by the cult of the invented pagan deity Santa Muerte used by the drug cartel, whose “veneration” the Church has been fighting against for decades in Mexico.
The Book of Life is a sweet, funny, and pleasant movie that provides a good alternative to the usual Halloween gore while celebrating one of world’s greatest Catholic cultures. It teaches the eternal truth that death does not end existence but is a stepping stone to a much greater adventure. While not perfect in its theology, if taken with a discerning mind this tale should lead one closer to the real Book of Life and the place where the communion of saints and God Himself awaits. And “all you can eat churros”!
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