Catholic Movie Club: ‘Coco’ builds a bridge between the living and the dead
The Catholic Movie Club is a short weekly essay pulling out spiritual themes in our favorite films. You can discuss the movies with other readers in the comments on this page or in our Facebook group. Find past Catholic Movie Club selections here.
Music and memory are intertwined. Neuroscientists have observed that the same areas of the brain light up when we are listening to a song or when we are just remembering it. “This suggested that people use the same brain regions for remembering as they do for perceiving,” Daniel J. Levitan writes in This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession. To remember, in other words, isn’t just to let an old film reel play in our minds. It’s to experience something again: the thoughts, the feelings, sometimes even the bodily sensations. Through memory, the past lives again.
In “Coco,” memory doesn’t just summon up phantoms from the past, it reunites us with those we’ve lost.
In this week’s film, “Coco” (2017), directed by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina and written by Molina and Matthew Aldrich, memory doesn’t just summon up phantoms from the past, it reunites us with those we’ve lost. To memorialize those who have passed, families leave pictures of their departed loved ones on small altars called ofrendas, allowing the departed to leave the Land of the Dead and visit the Land of the Living on Día de los Muertos. If there is no one left to keep a person’s memory alive, their spirit fades away into a “final death.”
Enter Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzalez), a 12-year-old aspiring musician in a family that hates music. All music has been banned ever since Miguel’s mysterious great-great-grandfather abandoned the family to become a musician. A series of magical circumstances results in Miguel crossing over into the Land of the Dead, where he learns that he needs to receive a family member’s blessing before sunrise or he will be trapped there forever. Unfortunately, his formidable great-great-grandmother Imelda (Alanna Ubach) refuses to offer her blessing unless Miguel swears off music forever. So, accompanied by a less-than-reliable charmer named Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), he sets off to find his musical idol, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), who he believes is his great-great-grandfather, to bestow the blessing instead. Music and memory play important roles throughout the story, showing that to be remembered means to live on.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what lives on after death this year. My grandmother passed away in the spring, and we just lost my mother-in-law last month. Both lived rich, full lives and I believe they are both home with God for eternity. There’s joy in that, but also the sadness of saying goodbye. Our relationships are made up of the concrete: a hug, a laugh, a Christmas card, a long car ride. When we can’t do those things with a loved one anymore, there’s a gap left in our lives.
But in our memories, our loved ones live on. Just as the same neurons fire whether we’re listening to a favorite song or just replaying it in our heads, remembering someone we’ve lost is a way of feeling their love again. And as long as we keep the love between us alive, we’ll never truly be separated.
This makes memory not just a thought, but an action. If we want to keep someone’s memory alive, we share their story with others. Our faith is a living memory, a memory we realize with our words, choices, and how we treat each other. At the Last Supper—and every Sunday— Jesus said: “Do this in memory of me” (Lk 2:19). He didn’t mean “Think of me fondly.” He meant: “Our relationship continues, even when you can’t see me anymore. Keep me alive in your heart, and we’ll always be together.”
Miguel’s favorite song, “Remember Me,” repeats several times throughout “Coco,” each time revealing a new meaning. “For even if I’m far away, I hold you in my heart,” the lyrics go. “I sing a secret song to you each night we are apart.” Memory brings the past to life and reunites us with those we’ve lost. We remember how they loved us, and they live on. Love is the thing that lasts, the bridge between the living and the dead.