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The Book of Life (1998)

Not Rated | | Comedy, Fantasy | 26 May 1999 (Belgium)
The end of the millenium has taken on a certain significance in modern day prophecies. What happens if Jesus Christ has second thoughts about the Apocalypse? It is December 31, 1999 and New... See full summary »


Hal Hartley


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Cast overview, first billed only:
Martin Donovan ... Jesus Christ
PJ Harvey ... Magdalena (as P.J. Harvey)
Dave Simonds ... Dave
Thomas Jay Ryan ... Satan
Miho Nikaido ... Edie
D.J. Mendel ... Lawyer
Katreen Hardt Katreen Hardt ... Receptionist
James Urbaniak ... True Believer
Anna Köhler Anna Köhler ... Hotel Clerk (as Anna Kohler)
Martin Pfefferkorn ... Martyr
Layla Alexander ... Waitress (as Olga Alexandrova)
Michael Ornstein ... Computer Wizard
Paul Albe ... Mormon Thug #1
Don Creech ... Mormon Thug #2
Joseph McKenna Joseph McKenna ... Man at Airport


The end of the millenium has taken on a certain significance in modern day prophecies. What happens if Jesus Christ has second thoughts about the Apocalypse? It is December 31, 1999 and New Year's Eve takes on new meaning when the Devil, Jesus Christ, and Christ's assistant Magdelina discuss and debate the end of the world, the opening of the seven seals, and the essence of being human. Written by Tracy <tjc217@is2.nyu.edu>

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis


A controversial retelling of the Apocalypse See more »


Comedy | Fantasy


Not Rated | See all certifications »



France | USA



Release Date:

26 May 1999 (Belgium) See more »

Also Known As:

Az élet könyve See more »


Box Office


$350,000 (estimated)
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Company Credits

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Did You Know?


Edie: Are you really the Devil?
Satan: Yes.
Edie: Would you like some soup?
[Satan looks completely baffled]
Dave: She's a Buddhist.
See more »


Referenced in In a Savage Land: Cast & Crew Interviews (2001) See more »

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User Reviews

The Gospel According To Hartley
5 March 2001 | by jhcluesSee all my reviews

One of the many speculations about Y2K was that the world was going to end at the stroke of midnight on December 31, 1999. In `The Book Of Life,' writer/director Hal Hartley takes a look at the possible ramifications of a new millennium Armageddon, beginning with the return of Jesus to Earth on New Year's Eve, ‘99. The story examines the task of the Son of God, who must open the remaining three of the seven seals contained in the Book of Life (now contained in a Mac laptop computer), in which there is also the names of the one-hundred and forty-four thousand good souls who will be spared on the last day. Jesus (Martin Donovan), along with Magdalena (P.J Harvey), arrives in New York City to make the preparations necessary for carrying out his Father's will, but he begins to have second thoughts; must he judge the living and the dead? Do they deserve what must befall them? It is a cup He would prefer not to embrace at this particular moment, which gives encouragement to Satan (Thomas Jay Ryan) who fears that the fruit of all his hard labor is about to be washed away at midnight, for he can only continue his work so long as there are people around who cling to their pitiful hopes and dreams. An artistically rendered, high concept film, Hartley presents the story in an intelligent, thought provoking manner, taking great care in dealing with the sensitive subject matter so as to make it inoffensive even to the most ardent fundamentalist. The dialogue between Jesus and Satan is intriguing and stimulating, as is the effect of their presence upon those they encounter during their corporeal stay in the city. It's an engrossing meditation on the spiritual side of Man's fragile existence and a contemplation of that which has been prophesied in the Revelations of St. John in the Apocalypse, the last Book of the New Testament. And there is logic in Hartley's approach to the Second Coming; he maintains the aesthetic of the contemporary setting while employing altered film speeds which visually give the film an ethereal quality. Christ inconspicuously wears a suit and tie, effectively blending in with the populace, while Satan's attire is a bit more casual, his appearance somewhat scruffy; he sports a bruise above his left eye. Donovan is well cast as Jesus, lending a benevolent mien and a sense of restrained urgency to his character that is very effective. It is, of course, a unique portrayal of The Saviour, and possibly the best since Max von Sydow's in `The Greatest Story Ever Told.' He successfully conveys a feeling of inner peace and tranquility, of serenity, that is the essence at the very core of the character. And Ryan is thoroughly engaging in his role of the Prince of Darkness; he has a distinct manner of speech and a resonant quality to his voice that make him absolutely mesmerizing to watch. His eyes are darkly penetrating, a trait he uses effectively with furtive glances and captivating stares. He's the guy who could sell you anything in exchange for your soul before you ever knew what hit you. It's a memorable performance that contrasts so well with Donovan's portrayal of Jesus. The supporting cast includes Martin Pfeffercorn (Martyr), Miho Nikaido (Edie), Dave Simonds (Dave), D.J. Mendel (Lawyer), James Urbaniak (True Believer), Katreen Hardt (Lawyer's Assistant) and Anna Kohler (Hotel Clerk). In his own, inimitable style, with `The Book Of Life,' Hartley has crafted a perspective of the last days that is interesting, entertaining and truly unique. He has a way of capturing life as it is just off center, a method which works especially well with a film like this. Comparatively short for a feature film (running time of 63 minutes), it nevertheless is one of Hartley's best, and more than worth the price of admission. It's a film that will stay with you and perhaps make you think about some things you may have tucked away in a corner of your mind for later. And that is part of the attraction of this film; it makes you realize that `later' most likely is now. I rate this one 9/10.

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