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"One of the many speculations about Y2K was that the world was going to end at the stroke of midnight on December 31, 1999. In "The Book Of Life," writer/director Hal Hartley takes a look at the possible ramifications of a new millennium Armageddon, beginning with the return of Jesus to Earth on New Year's Eve, `99. The story examines the task of the Son of God, who must open the remaining three of the seven seals contained in the Book of Life (now contained in a Mac laptop computer), in which there is also the names of the one-hundred and forty-four thousand good souls who will be spared on the last day. Jesus (Martin Donovan), along with Magdalena (P.J Harvey), arrives in New York City to make the preparations necessary for carrying out his Father's will, but he begins to have second thoughts; must he judge the living and the dead? Do they deserve what must befall them? It is a cup He would prefer not to embrace at this particular moment, which gives encouragement to Satan (Thomas Jay Ryan) who fears that the fruit of all his hard labor is about to be washed away at midnight, for he can only continue his work so long as there are people around who cling to their pitiful hopes and dreams. An artistically rendered, high concept film, Hartley presents the story in an intelligent, thought provoking manner, taking great care in dealing with the sensitive subject matter so as to make it inoffensive even to the most ardent fundamentalist. The dialogue between Jesus and Satan is intriguing and stimulating, as is the effect of their presence upon those they encounter during their corporeal stay in the city. It's an engrossing meditation on the spiritual side of Man's fragile existence and a contemplation of that which has been prophesied in the Revelations of St. John in the Apocalypse, the last Book of the New Testament. And there is logic in Hartley's approach to the Second Coming; he maintains the aesthetic of the contemporary setting while employing altered film speeds which visually give the film an ethereal quality. Christ inconspicuously wears a suit and tie, effectively blending in with the populace, while Satan's attire is a bit more casual, his appearance somewhat scruffy; he sports a bruise above his left eye. Donovan is well cast as Jesus, lending a benevolent mien and a sense of restrained urgency to his character that is very effective. It is, of course, a unique portrayal of The Saviour, and possibly the best since Max von Sydow's in "The Greatest Story Ever Told." He successfully conveys a feeling of inner peace and tranquility, of serenity, that is the essence at the very core of the character. And Ryan is thoroughly engaging in his role of the Prince of Darkness; he has a distinct manner of speech and a resonant quality to his voice that make him absolutely mesmerizing to watch. His eyes are darkly penetrating, a trait he uses effectively with furtive glances and captivating stares. He's the guy who could sell you anything in exchange for your soul before you ever knew what hit you. It's a memorable performance that contrasts so well with Donovan's portrayal of Jesus. The supporting cast includes Martin Pfeffercorn (Martyr), Miho Nikaido (Edie), Dave Simonds (Dave), D.J. Mendel (Lawyer), James Urbaniak (True Believer), Katreen Hardt (Lawyer's Assistant) and Anna Kohler (Hotel Clerk). In his own, inimitable style, with "The Book Of Life," Hartley has crafted a perspective of the last days that is interesting, entertaining and truly unique. He has a way of capturing life as it is just off center, a method which works especially well with a film like this. Comparatively short for a feature film (running time of 63 minutes), it nevertheless is one of Hartley's best, and more than worth the price of admission. It's a film that will stay with you and perhaps make you think about some things you may have tucked away in a corner of your mind for later. And that is part of the attraction of this film; it makes you realize that "later" most likely is now."
Excellent New Years Eve Movie
W. Alexander Vacca | Century City CA | 09/07/2000
(4 out of 5 stars)
"This is a superb film by Hal Hartley. Part of a European project on views of the millenium, Hartley submits a film that only an American could make. It is very slick, due in part to his use of digital film. The music complements the scenes perfectly (and the soundtrack makes a great CD too!). The movie traces an introspective Jesus on New Years Eve trying to end the world (think of it as the old black and white The Horn Blows and Midnight redone for the 21st century). In presenting the story the movie is a travelogue for NYC- and has an excellent NY feel- from the hotel bar, to the times square music store, to the Russian restaurant (note that the lights say TRUTH and FAITH in Russian) and in the street. It is uniquely American (in the millenium film group) in that it plays off the city, the law, and the business deal to make its point. This movie humanises Jesus, but at the same time avoids the intentional controversy around, say, a Last Temptation of Christ. In addition, the character of the devil is really a joy to watch. This movie will make you think.The only weakness is a rather sappy ending. I suppose it is a tricky film to end, but I found all but the last 5 minutes on the staten island ferry to be wonderful, but those last five were really not worthy of the rest of the film."
The Book Of Life - funny and thought-provoking
edwartell | Austin, TX United States | 09/01/2000
(4 out of 5 stars)
"It is the rare indie film that a)is funny in a droll way b)is thought provoking c)is especially interesting for biblical scholars d)that is both directed by Hal Hartley and is short and e)manages to squeeze in a Yo La Tengo cameo. Such, however, is Book Of Life, a film that posits a kinder, gentler, Armaggedon. Jesus Christ arrives at the airport December 31, 1999. He's expected to open the 4th-7th seals on the Book of Life, thereby unleashing Armageddon. He begins to have second thoughts, however, as he looks around and examines humanity. This causes trouble with God's lawyers. Besides the uniformly excellent writing, this movie also recalls Michael Almereyda's Hamlet, in that both movies hold special delights for those well-acquainted with the source material. The movie, shot on a digital camera, doesn't suffer for it. For Hartley fans, well worth the investment."
Great, even by Hartley standards.
Gordon Smith | san jose, ca United States | 12/12/2002
(5 out of 5 stars)
"If you don't like Hal Hartley, this film will not change your mind. It is more abstract, more talky and even more cheaply made than most of his stuff. But it is Awesome! It's basically Jesus (Martin Donovan) up against Satan (Thomas Jay Ryan) battling it out for the souls of men on New Year's Eve 1999-Armageddon. Jesus, as played by Donovan, is a self-doubting, earnest, hard-working, God-Fearing(pun intended),normal guy with the weight of the world on his conscience. Satan, as played by Ryan, is like an extra sleazy used car salesman, not to far off from Ryan's title role as Henry Fool. The two of them have excellent verbal battles which are as funny as you might imagine. Jesus's best line come when he says to Satan, "you know, it's not that you're so dispicable, it's just that you're so damn trite". It's almost as if the actors are speaking to each other... Throw in funny Mormon jokes, an appearance by PJ Harvey, as Jesus's assistant, and digital video style for miles and miles and you have the best one hour independent film about the Apocalypse ever made."
james laming | Dorset England | 04/19/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Living in England, I doubted I would ever get to see this short, let along actually own it. This is a multiregional release, so us Limeys can purchase the DVD as well as you darned Yankees. The film itself is only an hour or so, but succeeds on every level - there's not an ounce of fat on it. A freewheeling take on millenial apocalypse, it stars Hartley veteran (and all round object of desire) as, appropiately, God versus Thomas Jay Ryan's delicious Satan. A superb supporting cast including PJ Harvey (a revelation) and Hartley's better half Miho Nikado help bolster this humorous and theologically inventive piece into the realms of pure cinematic joy. Thomas Jay Ryan's Satanic deliveries to camera are superb. His best film? Quite possibly. Go on, shoot me. Reccomended without hesitation to all."