Friday, October 17, 2014

The Book of Life [2014]

MPAA (PG)  CNS/USCCB (A-II)  ChicagoTribune (3 1/2 Stars) (3 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (B-)  Fr. Dennis (3/1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. McAleer) review
ChicagoTribune (R. Moore) review (S. Wloszczyna) review
AVClub (K. Rife) review

The Book of Life [2014] (produced by Guillermo del Toro, directed and cowritten by Jorge Gutiérrez along with Douglas Langsdale) is a lovely, authentic, and hence _brilliantly colored_ children-oriented film celebrating the Mexican annual commemoration of "The Day of the Dead" [en.wikip] [es.wikip]* (Nov. 2nd, All Souls Day in the Catholic Church).

Non-Hispanics, and even non-Mexican Hispanics, not familiar with the Mexican celebration of this day may be absolutely stunned at the exuberance and richness of the art surrounding the celebration of this day, certainly conflating indigenous pre-Colombian traditions with those that arrived with Catholic Spain to Mexico.  Still, before getting on too high of a horse, non-Hispanic "Anglo" Americans ought to remember that traditions surrounding the Anglo-American celebration of All-Hallows-Eve (Halloween, Oct 31, the evening before the Church celebration of the All Saints Day) also involve conflations of Christian and pre-Christian elements arriving from previous Celtic and Germanic mythologies and world views (those ghouls and goblins of Halloween do come from somewhere ...).

The Book of Life [2014] also reminds viewers that traditions like the Mexican take on "The Day of the Dead" [en.wikip] [es.wikip]* can enliven the lives of otherwise "bored" / "alienated" young people who with "earbuds" on, listening to music on their iPods may be convinced that they've seen / experienced "all there is" even as they forget all connections to their past.

So it is, the film begins with a group of typically bored, "gum chewing," "eyes rolling" school kids on a field trip get dropped-off at the end of the day at a "museum."  Indeed, when they arrive, a crotchety security guard tries to get them to get back on the bus, because "it's late."  However, a young vivacious tour guide comes out to meet them and tells them to come along.  Eyes roll, but the kids follow.  And soon the kids find themselves in a brilliantly colored room that's part of the museum's "Day of the Dead" exhibit.  The kids look around, and _are_ surprised, both by the color _and_ by all the statuettes resembling regular "townspeople" (including some dressed as Catholic priests and nuns) doing "regular townspeople-like" things but all being, well, skeletons.  "What is with all that?"  asks one of the bored, gum-chewing students.

The tour guide then explains that this is the Museum's "The Day of the Dead" [en.wikip] [es.wikip]* exhibit and that the "The Day of the Dead" [en.wikip] [es.wikip]* is a Mexican tradition of remembering our dearly beloved relatives who've gone before us.  Indeed, she explains that there are "two worlds" in which Dead can enter when they die, the HAPPY, COLORFUL "Land of the Remembered" and the SAD, GLOOMY "Land of the Forgotten."  By remembering their dearly beloved relatives on All Souls Day / The Day of the Dead, Mexicans keep these relatives in the HAPPY, COLORFUL "Land of the Remembered." ...

The rest of the movie then unspools from there ... including the introduction by the tour guide to the previously bored but now intrigued students (as well as Viewers) to such characters Mexican stories / folklore as Santa Muerte (voiced in the film by Kate de Castillo) who the tour guide explains is the "Ruler" of the "Land of the Remembered" and Xibalba (voiced in the film by Ron Perlman) who rules over the gloomy "Land of the Forgotten."

The Cosmology of the story, of course, is not entirely Christian.  But it presented, above all, as a story and teaches the very salutary lesson of Remembering _nicely_ (and indeed Praying For) those who've gone before us, and that NO ONE is really Dead, so long as his/her memory remains in someone's Heart.

The whole practice of praying for the Dead in the Catholic (and Orthodox) Church, especially on All Souls Day (as well as on the anniversary of the loved one's death) has a similar purpose of maintaining connection with those who've gone before us with the promise that if we honor those who've gone before us, then there will be others who'll honor us after we ourselves are gone.  Hence Death need be as Scary as perhaps it otherwise would be.  It's ... part of Life.

Again, this is quite a lovely film and after so many recent American children's oriented films [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] that have made "people of color" or "with funny accents" the "bad guys," it's nice to see a film that celebrates the diversity present in our various neighbors rather than teach kids to fear it.

* Reasonably good (sense) translations of non-English webpages can be found by viewing them through Google's Chrome browser.

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