Eli and his book

Hans
Hans Rollmann
Send to a friend

Send this article to a friend.

Last weekend I saw the Hughes brothers' recent film, "The Book of Eli," with Denzel Washington in the leading role as Eli and Gary Oldman as Carnegie, his sinister opponent and antagonist.



The strongest female characters are Mila Kunis as Solara, who attaches herself to Eli, and her blind mother Claudia, played by Jennifer Beals, who is abused by Carnegie. In a post-apocalyptic North America, a nuclear holocaust and subsequent winter have turned the Earth into a menacing, lifeless landscape.

Last weekend I saw the Hughes brothers' recent film, "The Book of Eli," with Denzel Washington in the leading role as Eli and Gary Oldman as Carnegie, his sinister opponent and antagonist.



The strongest female characters are Mila Kunis as Solara, who attaches herself to Eli, and her blind mother Claudia, played by Jennifer Beals, who is abused by Carnegie. In a post-apocalyptic North America, a nuclear holocaust and subsequent winter have turned the Earth into a menacing, lifeless landscape.



Brutal force reigns supreme; water, food and the basic necessities of life and survival are precious commodities. In this world, somewhere between "Road Warrior" and "Deadwood," the traveller Eli arrives in a town controlled by a strongman, Carnegie, and his villains.



Carnegie, who is reading a book about Mussolini when he is first introduced, sends his motley crew of thugs to scour the countryside for a mysterious book which has so far eluded them. A book is also Eli's most prized possession, from which he reads daily, making this film "religious" despite its violent interludes.



Eli's use of this book also distinguishes the spirits of the film's antagonists, casting them in stark, black-and-white contrast.



The book so treasured by Eli is the last of its kind after post-apocalyptic humankind blamed it for helping to create the conditions that led to the nuclear devastation. After the catastrophe, all available copies but one were destroyed.



An authoritative inner voice compelled Eli to seek and find the last surviving copy of the book in the rubble, and started him on his journey across a barren American landscape. Relentlessly, Eli moves west, where the inner voice tells him that the hope of humankind rests with salvaging its cultural legacy - its great art, literature and science - for a new beginning.



For Eli, the content of the book opens up a horizon of hope and makes him a fundamentally peaceful individual, as he attempts to avoid conflict and quotes from the book, a King James Bible, the comforting words of Psalm 23: "The Lord is my Shepherd."



When challenged by opponents who could threaten his mission, however, Eli turns into an avenging angel and a superhuman destroyer. The film seems to find no contradiction in this.



The relationship of Eli to his book is one in which he gradually embraces and incorporates the written word, which commands not only his actions but also his devout and grateful - even prayerful - disposition. The book contains, after all, a prescription for a better life. At one stage, Eli self-critically chides himself for forgetting to live as the book directs, so preoccupied is he with his mission to preserve it from destruction.



The relationship between a sacred book and its readers opens up quite different possibilities. For the person who acts on its content, it can offer a life-changing journey and a profound source of hope. For the person who sees it as merely a formal authority, it may evoke reverential awe or fear, but it cannot ground and shape that person's life. This is why the controlling Carnegie wants the book, to provide supernatural sanction and a means to pacify the masses. For the cynical Carnegie, religion is an opiate for the masses and a mechanism to manipulate humankind. In this film, that strategy will not succeed, but it will result in anarchy and utter chaos.



Theological questions



I do not want to give away the ending, which has some unexpected turns that people should see for themselves. The film raises genuine theological questions, notably about the relationship between a sacred book and its audience, and about the ambiguity of its uses and its effect on human lives. Yet, not all religious people will be pleased with the portrayal of a "biblical" religion.



In contrast to post-modern ideologies, this film advocates respect for an authoritative canon of western literature and wisdom worth preserving. Yet in it the people trying to save such classics on Alcatraz Island understand the Bible merely as "literature," having its place next to Shakespeare and other sacred books of the world's religions.



Inherent in this concession to modern religious pluralism and secularity as antidote to religious conflict and strife is the obvious question of religious authority. Would such an enlightened humanism and adoration of classical culture have been strong enough to summon a prophetic voice and motivate Eli to press on in his demanding journey toward a mythical west? Or, would an Eli, even in a post-apocalyptic world, need a transcendent God or absolute to ground belief in such a book and such a quest?



Hans Rollmann is a professor of religious studies at Memorial University of Newfoundland and can be reached by e-mail at hrollman@mun.ca.

Organizations: Memorial University of Newfoundland

Geographic location: North America, Alcatraz Island

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5

Thanks for voting!

Top of page

Comments

Comments