Review: The Book of Life (B+)

The Book of Life[The Book of Life — written and directed by Marco Lui — is now available for general viewing through Audience Alliance.  The following is a reprint of my original review, posted in January 2011 at the LDS Film Festival]

Life is Beautiful meets Saturday’s Warrior in this Italian movie from writer/director/actor Marco Lui.  Like fellow Italian Roberto Benigni, Marco Lui is adept at physical comedy (and uses jokes and humor to distract attention from serious situations).   This beautifully shot Italian fable centers around spirits’ journey from the preexistence to mortal life and beyond.

Lui himself plays a spirit in the pre-existence who receives training on how to use comedy and jokes as tools in teaching, in preparation for life on Earth.  He meets a lovely female spirit playing the piano and the two of them start up a courtship.  Of course, their memories will be veiled once they both come down to Earth, and Marco will have to find the girl and start the courtship all over again before their brief, mortal time runs out.

The Book of Life is one of the most overtly LDS films in recent memory — a surprise anywhere, but certainly coming from Italy, where LDS members are few and LDS filmmakers even fewer.  The plot is basically a dramatization of the LDS Plan of Salvation, with many sections from the Book of Mormon quoted word-for-word in the film.   Stylistic film-making, and high energy performances keep The Book of Life from becoming a dull motion-picture-length Sunday School video.   The film is anchored by Marco’s performance, who throws himself into his “clown” role with both infectious enthusiasm and physical skill.

Like Saturday’s Warrior, the use of the preexistence as a plot point lends itself to some speculative elements that don’t stand up to doctrinal scrutiny — a little more problematic here, because The Book of Life is obviously meant to be a direct parable of the Plan of Salvation and could end up teaching the wrong lesson.  In Lui’s vision, our talents, future occupations, romantic encounters, and even our mortal life-span are preordained from our time in the preexistence — a principle that can have some dangerous implications when taken to the logical extremes.  However, the film is straight-forward and innocent, and families will probably be able to treat story elements as story rather than hard doctrine.

While Marco’s courtship of Chiarra is sweet, there’s one casting nitpick:  Chiarra is an “adult” of unspecified age in the film, but the actress playing her looks like she’s 16 (while Marco is 30) and this adds a slight (and, I’m sure, unintentional) “creepiness” factor to the relationship that undercuts the romance.

Many have wondered when LDS filmmaking would stretch beyond Utah into other countries and languages. The Book of Life is evidence that it has already started to happen.  Even better, The Book of Life is as pure a family film as you can get, with spiritual content and entertainment for both children and adults (provided everyone is okay with reading subtitles).

My Grade:  B+