Book of Life
1998, NR, 63 min. Directed by Hal Hartley. Starring Martin Donovan, P.J. Harvey, Thomas Jay Ryan, Miho Nikaido.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Aug. 20, 1999
Take this, Bill Gates: Jesus Christ uses a PowerBook. At least, in Hal Hartley's new, short (63 minutes) film, he does. Moreover, he keeps on his desktop The Book of Life, complete with the dreaded Seven Seals and the names of the righteous few who will be saved come Judgment Day. And you thought the government's antitrust case was all you had to worry about. This is a wicked, skillfully crafted, and eminently wise black comedy that feels as fresh as anything the director has done in years. Book of Life was originally commissioned for the recent 2000 Seen By film project, which brought together notable filmmakers from around the world and let them each take their own stab at the coming millennial rollover. Hartley's film, while clearly a product of his own unique style, is a far cry from the director's usual offerings. From its opening frames, in which we are privy to the arrival of Jesus Christ (Donovan) and his gal Friday Magdalena (played with irrepressible panache by British indie-rock fave P.J. Harvey) at New York's JFK airport, Hartley washes the images with odd camerawork, primary colors, and staccato editing. It's shot on digital video and blown up to 35mm, and the effect is magical, and strangely orienting. It's December 31, 1999, and J.C., looking rakish in a pressed suit and tie combination, is in town to meet with his Father's lawyers (Armageddon, Armageddon, Armageddon & Greene) to set in motion the Apocalypse. Magdalena, with her black backpack, leather jacket, and skin-tight clothing, tags along looking more like, well, P.J. Harvey than an angel. Jesus, though, is having his doubts about this whole destruction of the human race thing, and he's not the only one, either. In a nearby hotel bar sits the Father of Lies, Satan (Ryan), tossing back a few stiff ones while rhapsodizing over the needlessness of it all. Satan, it seems, is content with the way things have been running all along. “Let God have his eternity,” he sneers. “My precincts are the seconds and the minutes of the everyday. As long as there is a future, well, I have my work to do.” At the bar beside him is the battered atheist Dave (Simonds), equally morose over his ongoing gambling problems and the fact that the bargirl Edie (Nikaido), his secret love, seems to ignore him. Still, she gives him freebies from time to time and there's clearly something between them. Satan spots this right off and makes Dave an offer he can't refuse -- later, Dave approaches Jesus with the line “Can you help me? I think I've just lost my girlfriend's immortal soul for a long shot.” Hartley's film is full of dry, crackling wit like that, shot through with crystal clear observations on both humankind and things beyond that. Droll, sublime, and very, very funny, it's the director's most invigorating, intellectually arresting work in years.