It's the end of the world as we know it--and the devil is a bit grumpy. In The Book of Life, director Hal Hartley's contribution to the Cleveland Cinema-theque's end-of-the-millennium film series, 2000 Seen By . . ., the prince of darkness (played by Thomas Jay Ryan, the title character of Hartley's previous pic, Henry Fool) battles Jesus over human souls and can't seem to catch a break. "I used to work for Him, too," he frustratingly tells the Son of God at one point. "Until I quit." Quips Jesus: "You didn't quit, you were fired." Doh!
In Hartley's irreverent take on the end of the world, Jesus (Hartley regular Martin Donovan) arrives at JFK Airport on December 31, 1999, to carry out the Last Judgment (He keeps the Book of Life stored on his Egyptian-manufactured laptop). Along the way, He contemplates whether the lives of those around Him are worth saving after all and considers calling off the Apocalypse.
Filmed in a jittery, lo-fi style--with a digital camera, no less--The Book of Life is Hartley's most offhand film. It's typically talky and often quirky to a fault (patterns of even his best movies, Trust and The Unbelievable Truth). Jesus here is a suit-and-tied antihero, apathetic about His calling, risking both the wrath of God and banishment from heaven. "Who do these Christians think they are anyway?" He asks the devil.
And, as always seems the case, the bad is more intriguing than the good. Ryan's Satan (naturally lit in burning shades of red and constantly spouting verse from Revelations) is a much more fascinating and complex character than Donovan's flat Christ is. He even suggests that he and his eternal foe join together to form a new religion (to which Jesus replies: "It's not that you're so despicable. It's that you're so amazingly trite"). The relationship between the two adversaries is the key to the film. Satan chats with Jesus from a pay phone, and the two share drinks as they debate the fate of humanity.
But the slight Book of Life is merely a Hartley curio, running less than 65 minutes and loaded with erratic stylistic touches like exposed boom mics, characters speaking self-consciously to the audience, music lapses, and skewed camera angles. It's also occasionally smug and stunt-cast (PJ Harvey as a bland Magdelena, Yo La Tengo as a Salvation Army band). Yet its modern theological struggles portray a more involving and reflective end-of-the-world tale than that movie about Bruce Willis and a giant rock.
The Book of Life, on a double bill with Abderrahmane Sissako's Life on Earth, screens Friday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 9 p.m. at the Cleveland Cinematheque, 11141 East Boulevard. Tickets are $6; call 216-421-7450.