The Book of Life (Hal Hartley, 1998)

by Smart

Hal Hartley has proven throughout his career that he is a master of low budget filmmaking. The Book of Life continues this trend, and is most certainly not afraid to show it. It was filmed on digital video, and instead of trying to downplay this fact, Hartley has gone completely overboard with bringing it to the surface. The mise-en-scène is at times reminiscent of Wong Kar Wai, with the frequent abuse of shutter speed and exposure, which come together to create a dizzying but memorable aesthetic. The fourth wall is battered and broken down on more than one occasion, and always with a casual sardonic grin. Colours constantly shift and change with the natural lighting and even auto-focus is made to seem trendy. This eclectic visual washing machine may not always produce the most meaningful or necessary of compositions, but with such a short, snappy and experimental comedic film such as this one, it only adds to the overall positive experience.

Several familiar faces from Hal Hartley’s previous films are present here, including both Martin Donovan and Thomas Jay Ryan. However, the most alluring presence is that of P.J. Harvey, who plays her role with a great calm and proficiency. As the title somewhat alludes to, the story focuses on the imminent apocalypse that both Jesus Christ and Satan are looking forward to experiencing along with the new millennium, which just so happens to be only a day away. It is a playful, cynical look at religion and the bible, with plenty of opinionated, humorous dialogue being spouted, which is sure to offend some viewers. Yet it is all handled with a delicious self-aware humbleness, and the treatment of the premise alone is enough to ensure a smile right through the brisk 63 minute running time. Manhattan is where this big event is all going down and it looks beautiful at times, untainted by unnecessary set-design or crowd control. The Book of Life is funny, inventive, visually mischievous and quietly confrontational.