It’s hard to believe that just over a year ago, OutlooK-12 launched its new Art Department section with a story about Jorge R. Gutiérrez and Guillermo Del Toro’s animated movie “The Book of Life.” Greatly inspired by the culture, traditions and art of Mexico, the film revolves around the Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos), and one of its characters in particular stands out as the embodiment of the holiday. So in honor of the upcoming Day of the Dead and the anniversary of the Art Department section, we are rerunning our article.
Halloween is a common subject for American movies. “The Nightmare Before Christmas” is about an entire town of monsters that create Halloween for humans each year. “Hocus Pocus” involves children trying to stop three witches from taken over Salem on Halloween night. There is even a franchise of slasher films all originating from the 1978 horror movie “Halloween.” Yes, Halloween is practically a mainstay of American cinema.
The Day of the Dead, however, is another story.
Known as Día de los Muertos, this holiday is officially celebrated from November 1 through November 2 with related events also taking place around these dates throughout Mexico. While Halloween has become a mainstream celebration of the scary, the Day of the Dead is a time to remember the deceased. Traditions include family members visiting loved ones’ tombs and leaving items such as flowers, candles, pan de muertos (bread of the dead), the deceased’s possessions and skull-shaped confections called sugar skulls on altars erected in their honor.
Although not celebrated as widely as it is in Mexico, the Day of the Dead has in recent years gained popularity in the United States, and in 2014 director Jorge R. Gutiérrez and producer Guillermo Del Toro released a movie to American audiences that focused not only on this holiday but on one of its most iconic figures.
“The Book of Life” is a computer-animated film about a young man named Manolo (voiced by Diego Luna) who becomes caught up in a bet between two powerful ancient gods and a love triangle involving two of his oldest childhood friends. Siding with Manolo is La Muerte who like the Aztec mythology deity Mictlancíhuatl rules the afterlife with her husband. In a featurette about the movie, La Muerte’s voice actress Kate Del Castillo directly connected her character to the female skeletons that are central to the Day of the Dead festivities.
“She’s actually a catrina,” Del Castillo said in the featurette. “Beautiful, elegant, loving, even though she’s a…skull.”
A major source of inspiration for the modern day catrinas that Del Castillo spoke about in her interview is the art of José Guadalupe Posada. Known for making political and cultural statements, Posada’s work “La Calavera Catrina” depicts a headshot of a female skeleton with a large elaborate hat decorated with flowers.
Inspired by Posada’s piece, the painter Diego Rivera took the concept one step further in his mural “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Park” by painting a full body shot of the skeleton who now had an elegant dress to match her hat and was standing among a group of people. Today in large part because of the art of Posada and Rivera, modern catrinas have come to represent how death is the great equalizer because it comes to everyone including rich and poor alike.
Beyond her resemblance to Posada and Rivera’s feminine skeletons, “The Book of Life’s” La Muerte reflects the Day of the Dead and its traditions in other respects. She is described as being made of sugar candy, which is reminiscent of the sugar skulls left on loved ones’ altars. Although she does not appear to be a true or at least not a full skeleton (notice that her hands and lower arms are not made of exposed bones, and her ribcage is not visible), her face is nevertheless reminiscent of the colorful artistic representations of skulls that are synonymous with Día de los Muertos.
Her clothes (which are also decorated with small ornate skulls) are adorned with lit candles, which are placed on altars during the holiday. In addition, the orange flowers on her clothes and hat appear to be a species of marigold called the flor de cempasuchil, which are commonly put on loved ones’ altars because they represent the light and in particular the rays of the sun. The fragrant plant is also believed to attract and guide the souls of the departed on Día de los Muertos.
In addition to her appearance, La Muerte’s actions demonstrate both an understand of and a respect for the Day of the Dead’s customs. At the beginning of the film, her and her husband Xibalba (voiced by Ron Perlman) secretly visit Manolo’s hometown on Día de los Muertos. When Xibalba who is a trickster by nature uses his magic to put out a group of the lit candles being used to remember the departed, La Muerte immediately uses her own powers to relight them. Later, La Muerte disguises herself as an elderly woman and asks a young Manolo for a loaf of the pan de muertos that had been left in honor of his mother. She is pleased when Manolo immediately gives her the bread, saying it is what his mother would have wanted.
Beyond these scenes, La Muerte’s role in the afterlife is one of the most striking aspects of how she very much symbolizes the essence of the Day of the Dead in the film. She is the ruler of the Land of the Remembered, a vibrant, happy place that souls who are still remembered by the living get to enjoy in the hereafter. As the movie unfolds, a great deal of the storyline centers on both La Muerte’s realm and on the importance of remembering those who have passed away. In “The Book of Life” those who are not consistently remembered by the living are sent to the Land of the Forgotten, a gloomy, desolate wasteland where the souls who wind up there turn to ash, are scattered by the wind and seemingly disappear from existence. This plot point not only increases the danger for the movie’s main characters but also reinforces that the purpose of the Day of the Dead is to remember the deceased. In addition, it is also a nod to another of the holiday’s traditions since candles are not only lit on Día de los Muertos to remember loved ones but also in honor of those who have died and been forgotten.
Currently, there is talk about a sequel for “The Book of Life” that may delve deeper into the backstories of the film’s characters. But for Del Castillo, it was the original movie’s embodiment of the Day of the Dead’s spirit and customs that helped draw her to the role of the animated catrina La Muerte.
“I am very proud, very honored because this has so much to do with me and with where I come from,” Del Castillo said in the featurette. Del Castillo who was born and raised in Mexico remembers fondly what she described as the “beautiful traditions” connected to the Day of the Dead—traditions that she expressed are not as well known or present in the United States. “So for me to be a part of this Mexican-American movie, it’s a privilege to do it.”