It is surprisingly easy to be a hypocrite.
Laughing at those that still eat Nutella and never checking the palm oil content in any other product. Posting a heartfelt Instagram story about the Amazon fire and not wondering what led to it in the first place. Skipping the plastic straw to save the fish and ordering a plate of salmon at the same meal. Condemning countries where dog meat consumption is common while eating a burger. Denounce corridas while planning a fishing getaway.
We’ve all been guilty of doing this. It doesn’t necessarily say much about us individually. It says much more about how hard it is to detach one’s self from the culture that made it. On some unconscious level, we all see the things that are wrong in the culture we call our own. But criticizing them would be letting go of the things we associate with home — and that’s uncomfortable. So then we become more prone to denouncing other cultures, of becoming afraid of this Other altogether. The Other is associated with violence, disrespect, fear, while our own culture is always the closest thing to perfection. It is a dangerous mindset, but unfortunately a pretty natural one to have.
The Book of Life knows its subject by heart. The film is a constant love letter to Mexican tradition and myth. The Land of the Remembered is a feast for the eyes, the world of the living only slightly less colourful. If it sometimes slows down, it is only for a couple seconds before picking back its hectic pace.
And yet, the moments when it slows down are perhaps the most important. They are all accompanied by Manolo’s guitar and Diego Luna’s slightly nasal but oh-so-charming voice. Soft arpeggios lit up by the moon mark the beginning of his love story with Maria; then, only a few minutes later, an Elvis Presley cover at sunrise signal its abrupt end. Starting from this moment, Manolo runs for his life, and it seems the sweet ballads of the world of the living will never have a place in the Land of the Remembered. That is, not until Manolo’s final fight for his life.
The Book of Life recognizes tradition for both its beauty and the pain it causes. The myths, the streets of San Angel, La Muerte and Xibalba: all are presented as things of splendour. And yet Mexican tradition is not immune to criticism. Maria’s character arc focuses on how little choices she gets to make as a woman, even a high-ranking one. And of course, Manolo’s may be the one that is the most thoroughly explored. He questions his destiny and the morality behind bullfighting, all the while dreaming he could live from his guitar playing instead.
If his ambition is met with disdain and mockery, everything changes once he gets to fight the ghost of every single bull his family killed. Instead of attacking them, he pulls out his guitar, hoping to soothe the bulls in their heart, begging for their forgiveness. It is a powerful moment, probably the best one in the film — and what makes it such a special one.
It would have been easy to correlate the cruelty of bullfighting with Mexican tradition; to make Manolo hate his family, to show him as different from the rest. Yet, Manolo loves them with all his heart, and they are rarely shown in a negative light. All he does in the end is show them that there is another way that the one they had been used to, that they don’t have any less of a legacy simply because an alternative path exists. Manolo finds forgiveness in his heart precisely through the love he has for his family and culture.
If this is a movie aimed at children first and foremost, everyone can take away something from Manolo’s journey. Jorge R. Guttierez’s debut film shows us that loving our culture doesn’t mean mindlessly defending all of its aspects. In fact, maybe the best thing we can do is always try to make it better, no matter how ingrained certain traditions may be. You don’t suddenly start hating your entire house because a lightbulb stopped working; you just replace it. Culture can feel like a home to many people, and it can be tough to realize that it’s not as perfect as we were led to be. It doesn’t mean we’re evil for partaking in it, or that everything we’ve lived so far is a lie. It just means that if there’s a possibility to make it better, there’s no reason apart from our own ego that says we shouldn’t try to do so.
You’re not betraying anyone by holding the things you love accountable for the hurt they cause. If anything, you’re making it even more easy to love for the ones that will come after you. The Book of Life proves that it is the best thing we can all do. Embrace the imperfections — it’s what makes us grow.