Monday, July 5, 2010

The Book of Eli

Is the Bible a tool for manipulating and controlling people?  Or is it a civilizing, democratizing force?  The Book of Eli asks that question in the context of post-apocalyptic America, in which anarchy reigns and there is no remembered sense of morality, culture, or societal structure.  One man believes he holds the key to rebuilding civilization: Eli (Denzel Washington), armed with the sole remaining copy of the Bible.
It's crazy and absurd, in a way, but as we learn during the course of the movie, many people blamed Christianity for the war that led to nuclear annihilation.  As a result, Bibles were burned and religion was wiped out.  Eli has been carrying the Bible for 30 years, heading west.  (I know it's a big country, but it seems like he could have gotten there in less than 30 years. . . . Unless I'm too dense, we never really learn why it's taken him so long.)  In the course of his travels, he happens on a town ruled with an iron fist by Carnegie (Gary Oldman).  He has tried to rebuild a semblance of civilization, but through terror and vice, as a dictator, not through democratic, cooperative means.

Eli meets up with Solara (Mila Kunis), the daughter of Carnegie's concubine/slave.  She asks Eli, "Do you really read the same book every day?"  Eli unhesitatingly responds, "Without fail."  He quotes several scriptures on occasion.  You do have to admire his devotion to the Bible.  He reads and memorizes it daily, and he protects it from all comers, which are legion.  Eli's finely honed fighting skills leave any and all attackers dead or dying, such is his passion to continue his quest and protect the Bible.
Eli's face-off with Carnegie reveals Carnegie's motive for wanting to get his hands on the Bible.  "I know its power.  If you read it, so do you."  He appeals to Eli's desire to restart civilization, saying he needs the Bible to help him develop the town and enhance his leadership.  "Just staying alive is an act of faith. . . . But they don't understand that. . . . I don't have the right words to help them, but the book does.  Imagine how different, how righteous this little world could be if we had the right words for our faith.  It's not right to keep that book hidden away.  It's meant to be shared with others.  It's meant to be spread."  Amen to that last part!  But Eli easily sees through Carnegie's agenda (not hard to do since he's surrounded by henchmen poised to kill Eli!) and moves on.

Eli turns reflective after his final showdown with Carnegie's men.  "All the years I've been carrying it and reading it every day I got so caught up in keeping it safe I forgot to live by what I learned from it.  Just do for others more than you do for yourself."  An overly simplistic and theologically inaccurate summary of scripture, to be sure, but a nice reminder not to worship the book but to live in service to the author.  I was reminded of the Fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention.  They were so caught up in protecting the Bible from what they perceived as a liberal onslaught that they neglected to love their brothers and sisters in the convention, driving them away through deceptive and evil means.

I really liked this movie.  Aside from any theological or moral problems, the overarching theme of Eli's commitment to scripture made the movie for me.  Imagine if, unlikely as it may be, all Bibles were destroyed.  We could piece together what we've memorized, but to have the words on the page would be irreplaceable.  God has given us a tremendous gift in his written word.  Eli teaches us to treasure it.

Bottom line, 3 1/2 stars.

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