The Book of Life
From private altars and trips to the cemetery to sugar skulls and family gatherings, the Guillermo del Toro production The Book of Life focuses on a wager between La Muerta, ruler of the Land of the Remembered where spirits live on in their loved ones’ memories, and Xibalba, ruler of the Land of the Forgotten where there is nothing but decay. Told as a field trip class is given a private tour, the city of San Angel is home to three childhood friends: Maria, Manolo and Jacquin. Manolo is expected to follow in the family tradition of bullfighting, while Jacquin is a local military hero whose confident initiative is to ask Maria to marry him. Only trouble is, Manolo is the local rebel more infatuated with his guitar and Maria. So the wager is over which suitor Maria will choose!
Reminiscent of The Nightmare Before Christmas, The Book of Life is distinguished by its cinematography that separates the world of the living from the world beneath, both as a sublime place of terror and exquisite beauty.
Originally a DreamWorks picture, after creative differences arose the film ended up being distributed by 20th Century Fox and features a soundtrack written by Gustavo Santuolalla and Paul Williams! And as with Nightmare Before Christmas, the music adds to the vibrancy of the broad picture of a Mexican holiday spread out over Halloween, November 1st (called The Day of the Dead) and November 2nd (The Day of Remembrance.)
Everything about this film is somewhat palindromic, from its field trip bookends that serve as a means of teaching Mexican cultural traditions to the unaware, to Manolo being groomed for the bullring where the matador vows the death of his opponent as a metaphor for conquering death itself. Traced back to an Aztec festival dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl, the remembrance of ancestors is present throughout the Spanish world as well as in Buddhist and Taoist traditions as “the feeding of the hungry ghosts,” a celebration to return the spirits of the dead to Hell.
As Maria is pursued by both her suitors, it becomes evident that Jacquin, who hopes to avenge his father’s death at the hands of the bandit Chakal, has been given an advantage by Xibalba in the guise of a mystical medal that gives whomever wears it the power of invulnerability.
What begins as a children’s animated film quickly delves into the more philosophic realm of how death offers resolution that allows others to grow away from the negative connotations of fear and abandonment.
Jacquin is portrayed as the acquisitive, goal-oriented male; Manolo as the artisan equipped with a sense of uncertainty. He’s not the alpha male. It’s a struggle between feelings of omnipotence and feelings of powerlessness, the yin and the yang of existence.
So while Jacquin conducts his romantic intentions in the open, Manolo is restricted to clandestine, after-hours meetings with Maria. It’s the palindromic ambition that foreshadows Maria’s choice and causes further interference from Xibalba to win this bet!
As a generational fantasy, The Book of Life is multi-tiered to appeal to a wide audience and not just kids. Children will be attentive to its witty, snarky dialog and the magnificent color swirl reflecting its carnival motion, while romantic adults will be more prone to notice the overreaching love triangle and the randomness of it all.
But the beauty is that it might inspire its audience to recognize the purely Mexican folklore perspective, to bring out a remembrance of Mexican heritage through its celebration of The Day of the Dead.
On the downside, its misguided declaration that “to be a hero, one must be willing to sacrifice oneself” is quite absurd!
Any action undertaken for the benefit of someone that person loves is no sacrifice! Spending a fortune to cure a loved one is one thing; being extorted for money to save the lives of people you don’t know, none of whom mean anything to you – that’s self-sacrifice in a nutshell!
To be heroic means your highest moral principle should be to achieve what makes you happy – determined by you, not some government agency.
He who speaks of self-sacrifice speaks too of slaves and master. And that person intends to be the master.
Manolo acts out of love, not sacrifice!