Two Dantes: The Marigold Bridge Between Coco and the Inferno

Death is one of the great mysteries of life. Faiths, cultures, and individuals around the world, across all time, have pondered and theorized about what awaits beyond our final breath. This challenging, mystifying concept is not only addressed, but also actively engaged with through Dante Alighieri’s epic poem Inferno and the Lee Unkich film Coco, both of which ease their audiences into the other realm through a narrative guide, bringing the hero from the mortal world into the hitherto unknown.

In the Inferno, Dante (as the narrator) is guided through Hell by the ancient poet Virgil. The appearance of three beasts forces Dante, a mortal, into a “lower place,” where he encounters the spirit of Virgil, who accompanies him through the underworld as his guide. The pair go through all the circles of hell, bearing witness to eternal punishment of sins from the least offensive to the most despicable. Compared to Virgil, who knows Hell well and has seen it all before, Dante is initially sympathetic and is filled with anguish for what he sees, but as they journey on, he comes to understand the sense of order and just punishment taking place, and feels no sorrow for the sinners he encounters. Dante’s Inferno, as a work, is also notable for the concept that the actions taken in one’s mortal life are proportional to what awaits in the next world. Dante is an outsider at first, but comes to know and accept the fantastical world he encounters.

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Dante and Virgil.

In Unkrich’s film Coco, the role of Dante is flipped to that of guide, driving the action and pulling the protagonist through the different spaces of the afterlife. It is Dante who sets the plot into motion; he inspires Miguel to “seize [his] moment” when he helps himself to some mole from the Rivera family ofrenda, inadvertently knocking down the photo of Rivera family matriarch Mama Imelda, which triggers the living Mama Coco’s memory of her father (allegedly famed musician Ernesto de la Cruz), which Miguel takes as a sign to become a musician himself, and claim his great-great-grandfather’s guitar. The resulting magic causes Miguel to find himself transported to the realm of the dead, where it is Dante who pulls him from place to place, such as bringing together Miguel and Héctor, who also takes on the role of guide to Miguel. Between both worlds, living and dead, Dante is the alebrije spirit guide accompanying Miguel to pursue his destiny.

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Crossing the marigold bridge.

Both visions of the underworld reflect what took place prior to the afterlife. Dante’s Inferno inflicts punishment proportional to the sins committed on earth, from minor offenses to more serious, sacrilegious crimes. The nine circles of hell are cleanly divided to organize sinners to the right spheres they belong to. There is also a clearly defined order to the Land of the Dead in Coco, where one’s well-being in the afterlife is impacted by the living and the relationships fostered in the mortal life. The muertos bring back food, gifts, and other material objects from the world of the living, provided their loved ones dedicate any for them; this of course is dependent on how the living feel about the dead in question, and whether theirs is a memory worth honoring. Héctor finds himself coming short in this structure, with few belongings to his name and his memory fading fast from those still alive. The choices he made in life, for better or worse, impact the death that awaits him.

A humorous early moment in Coco features Mama Elena, Miguel’s grandmother, shooing away Dante and trying to teach her grandson a lesson: “Never name a street dog. They’ll follow you forever.” The Dante of the Inferno is certainly a follower, clinging to Virgil as they journey through Hell, while the Dante dog she throws her chancla (sandal) at turns out to be the guide to Miguel’s follower. In some ways, Coco could be a 21st century take on the Inferno; in both, the sins and actions taken in life have consequences that last well beyond the grave, but the emphasis in Coco are the implications for the family, beyond the individual. Dante’s Inferno paints a picture of the underworld full of miserable lost souls, without regard or understanding of others around them. What is committed in life is one’s own business, and whether or not someone ends up at the same place as a loved one is hardly addressed. In Coco‘s Land of the Dead, family is everything, and the greatest punishment over anything is an existence without family.

Both are fascinating texts, each with so much to offer and provoke around what comes after this life. As much as they are works to ease us into these unknown worlds through concrete, tangible means, they also reflect the values and priorities of the author guides who take us there.

“Coco” Q&A with Adrian Molina & Matthew Aldrich

On Tuesday January 09, I had the opportunity to attend a special screening of Coco, followed by Q&A with co-director/co-screenwriter Adrian Molina and co-screenwriter Matthew Aldrich. This was my fourth time seeing the film and, like all great movies, I find my love for it only growing with each additional viewing.

To paraphrase, some of the insights they shared included:

  • Originally, Coco was going to be more of a “traditional” musical featuring a whole score of songs by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, but after several rounds of rough screenings it was decided the feel didn’t fit what the team intended. Of the many songs the Lopez duo had written, only “Remember Me” remains.
  • An early concept was that the Rivera family, who has written off music, would be cursed to only sing (never speak) in the afterlife. I’m ok that they dropped this idea!
  • With so much effort put into world-building, it allowed the production crew to more easily adjust the story as needed. If the sets were locked down, a scene could be staged, re-iterated, or cut out, without impacting the place itself.
  • The Land of the Dead represented in the film is that of Santa Cecilia, the home of Miguel and the Rivera family. The marigold bridge from the graveyard is a portal from Santa Cecilia to the Land of the Dead, and the other bridges connect the afterlife to other villages; the idea being, every place in the land of the living has its own corresponding Land of the Dead.
  • In earlier drafts of the script, the overall approach to death was to “move on” and “get over it,” which didn’t feel true to the story they were trying to tell. With additional research and contributions by cultural consultants, the message pivoted to one of remembering, rather than moving on from, the loss of loved ones. This more authentically represents what Día de los Muertos is about: to remember those we’ve lost.

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Coco (2017)

Say that I’m crazy or call me a fool
But last night it seemed that I dreamed about you
When I opened my mouth what came out was a song
And you knew every word and we all sang along.

Coco is perhaps the most culturally focused and specific Pixar film to date. It is set not in Anytown, USA, or a prehistoric wilderness, or a fairytale kingdom. It is within one village, Santa Cecilia, and follows one boy as he learns about his family. If Inside Out is powerful for its universality, Coco is a marvel for its effective specificity about one family, their music, and their legacy.

Our young hero, Miguel Rivera (performed exceptionally by Anthony Gonzalez), is not out to save the world – he’s pursuing his destiny, diving into his family history to understand his past. He’s an aspiring musician from a family that forbids music; his great-great grandfather abandoned his wife and child to pursue music, triggering an instant and long-running resentment by the family towards the art form. In order for Miguel to see his dream through, he must first win over his family in the present, by unlocking his family’s past.

On the eve of Dia de los Muertos, he finds himself accidentally transported to the Land of the Dead, bringing him face-to-face with his ancestors, including his Mama Imelda, the great-great grandmother whose heart was broken by her musician husband. With the help of Hector, a ragged companion Miguel finds along the way, he dives deeper into his family history and learns the truth of what happened so long ago.

Dia de los Muertos is a holiday celebrating the life of those no longer with us, when the living play host to our dearly departed. Favorite foods, family photos, even shots of tequila are displayed on ofrendas (altars) to welcome our loved ones back into our lives. The Rivera ofrenda, like any, is tailored for the ancestors left behind, to connect them to the present and to remind those living today of the family’s past.

The theme of memory courses throughout the film as the underlying tragedy, and promise, of Dia de los Muertos. A person’s “second life” in the Land of the Dead goes on only as long as they still have a living descendant who remembers them. This is all the more poignant as Miguel’s great-grandmother and oldest living relative Mama Coco ages and experiences memory loss, putting the memory of her ancestors at risk. But Miguel learns, through a complex yet poetic narrative, that memories of the past can bring a family closer together in the present.

It’s hard to talk about this movie without tiptoeing into spoiler territory, but I can promise that the ending, tying together the concepts of death, memory, and family is a spectacularly moving musical finale. The sorrow and joy of a family’s love is brought together through song for an emotional yet uplifting climax – at first surprising for a film with so much death, but ultimately does embody the warm spirit of Dia de los Muertos.

Not everyone is of Mexican descent, and much of the world has never celebrated Dia de los Muertos (including myself), but the tale woven from a specific cultural holiday, about one unique family, is a universal and unforgettably moving film.