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THE BOOK OF LIFE (1998)





PHILOSOPHICAL ISSUES: divine justice and forgiveness

CHARACTERS: Jesus Christ (Martin Donovan), Magdalena (P.J. Harvey), Satan (Thomas Jay Ryan), Edie (waitress), Dave the gambler,

OTHER FILMS BY DIRECTOR HAL HARTLEY: Amateur (1994), Henry Fool (1997), No Such Thing (2001), The Girl From Monday (2005), Fay Grim (2006)

SYNOPSIS: Jesus returns December 31, 1999 at JFK airport in New York City and checks into a Manhattan hotel. His task is to end the world as we currently know it, judge the wicked, and begin the new Millennium of God’s rule. To do this, he must open the last three seals of the Book of Life, which will bring on the remainder of the apocalypse. But, Jesus is having second thoughts and considering forgiving everyone instead. This means defying God and in essence exiling himself from God just as Satan did. As Jesus struggles with his decision, he locks horns with God’s attorney on earth who insists that Jesus follow God’s law. Meanwhile, Satan likes things just as they are and laments the opening of the Book of Life. When he discovers Jesus’ hesitation, he acquires the Book of Life in an attempt to open just one more seal on it. Unfortunately for Satan, the Book of Life has a security lock on it that he can’t undo. “Those bastards in heaven, they think of everything,” Satan whines. Satan then joins Jesus at his hotel for a New Year’s Eve party, and the new millennium begins just like any normal day.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:

1. The beggar at the airport keeps rambling, “Forgive me Jesus I have sinned; have mercy on us now and at the hour of our death.” Why does he have binoculars around his neck?

2. “I could never get used to that part of the job, the power and the glory, the vengeance; but I persevered.” What specifically is the dilemma that Jesus faces?

3. Jesus states, “I remember the flood, Babel, Sodom and Gomorrah. My father he is an angry God; to him the law is everything. Still to this day attorneys are his favorites.” God’s attorney states to Jesus, “You know what your father wants; quit stalling.” What is the connection between God, the law, and punishment?

4. Dave the gambler is an atheist who holds that people don’t have souls and are only “material, mechanisms, biological accidents.” Love, according to Dave, is only a survival mechanism. According to Satan, though, Edie’s love for Dave disproves this: he’s so unreliable that loving him couldn’t facilitate her survival; thus, she has a real soul and isn’t simply a mechanical biological accident. Is Satan’s argument compelling?

5. Dave gambles Edie’s soul away to Satan, and Satan then says the following: “One more soul snatched away from the all-knowing unknowable is still a feather in my cap. So what if it’s the last day of the world; I’m not going to give in without a fight, come what may. Let God almighty rule eternity; my precincts are the minutes and hours of the every day. As long as people have hopes and dreams, well, then, I’ll have my work to do.” What is Satan’s task on earth?

6. “I’ve been misunderstood. They think I hold a grudge against humanity, but that’s not it at all. I just think we have a good system, this tug of war between heaven and hell.” How might this current tug of war be a good system?

7. Prior to his arrival, the first four seals of the Book of Life were already opened, which brought on war, death, famine and pestilence. Jesus says he fears opening the fifth seal the most, though, which requires him facing the martyrs who died for their faith in hopes of divine justice at the end times. What’s so bad about this?

8. God’s attorney states this about God: “My client’s authority rests on this threat [of divine justice] alone.” What does this mean?

9. Early in the film the Pope calls Jesus on the phone, and Magdelana tells the Pope that he got the wrong number. Later in the film Jesus doesn’t even know who the Mormons are. What does this imply?

10. Jesus states, “I won’t judge the living and the dead. I hate this closed door policy. Who do these Christians think they are anyway?” What precisely is the closed door policy that Jesus is objecting to?

11. God’s attorney chastises Jesus for resisting to go through with God’s plan of divine judgment. The attorney states, “I never thought it was a good idea to have God made flesh. It’s messy, the human element, you know.” What does this imply about the nature of compassion and forgiveness?

12. Satan is glad that Jesus will not bring on divine judgment. Still, Satan wants to open the sixth seal which will create earthquakes and natural disasters, and thus provide the right fear factor for introducing a new religion. Is that better than either the current system or God’s plan of divine judgment?

13. What is Jesus’ basic message in the film, and is it sufficient to meet the apparent human yearning for religion?

14. At the close of the film, Jesus speculates about the future and how humans will evolve biologically and culturally. “Will they still believe life is sacred? Will it matter? Do we matter?” Are these questions more the domain of religion or ethics?