review for The Book of Life on AllMovie

The Book of Life (1998)
by Brian J. Dillard review

Henry Fool may have reached for a lot more than it could grasp, but independent figurehead Hal Hartley's follow-up doesn't even have high ambitions to excuse its failures. The only American entry in France's "Collection 2000" series of millennium-themed fare, The Book of Life is a glib exercise in kooky obscurantism -- the cinematic equivalent of hearing someone laugh at his own joke. It's hard to say what's more frustrating, the film's deliberately smeary digital-video palette or its maddeningly elliptical storytelling style; the film is literally a chore to watch, both visually and narratively. In her acting debut (not counting her highly theatrical stage shows), protean rocker PJ Harvey glides serenely through her role as Magdalena, the Biblical whore who now serves as Christ's bodyguard. Meanwhile, Henry Fool's Thomas Jay Ryan continues to chew scenery in another larger-than-life role, this time that of Satan himself. Martin Donovan cleverly plays Jesus the same way he has played any number of other passive-aggressive protagonists for Hartley, Don Roos, and other directors. Despite plenty of cleverly written scenes between these principals, however, the film never really adds up to much. Too many digressions and too much pretentious banter will wear out all but the most reverent audiences. The film's chief strength is its brief, one-hour running time. Stunt casting and profane Christian revisionism yielded far more kinetic results with Kevin Smith's subsequent Dogma, while other "Collection 2000" filmmakers, including Laurent Cantet, seemed more inspired by the approaching 21st century.