For all this fame and accolades, you have to admit that Denzel Washington has a pretty hit or miss resume. For every Glory you can name, there are at least two or three Mighty Quinns and Devil in a Blue Dresses. In other words, “starring Denzel Washington” is not a phrase that has any bearing on how good a particular show will be. I watched The Book of Eli with this in mind.
The story unfolds in an old school post-apocalyptic wasteland straight out of the old Mad Max series. Eli (Denzel) is walking through what’s left of the world and shows us his life’s hardships. In the course of his travels, he runs into a village being run by Carnegie (Gary Oldman), who at first doesn’t look like more than the typical clichéd small-town dictator that every other movie in this genre presents as the villain. Thankfully, this did not remain the case. It turns out that Carnegie is looking for a very special book and having no luck doing so. Want to guess who happens to have a copy of said book and will kill anyone who tries to take it from him? Carnegie isn’t going to let a little violence stop him, so the chase is on to find Eli and take the book from him.
Don’t watch this movie if you want to see a lot of action. There are a few intense fight scenes, but they are very brief and are secondary to the main thrust of the plot. What’s really going on is Eli’s personal faith in the power that entrusted the book to him and how others respond to faith in general. For this reason, secularists will hate the movie, probably because it was promoted as action-based, while Christians of all stripes will be presently surprised and enjoy it.
Don’t watch this movie if you are expecting powerful performances by the actors. Denzel probably does the least amount of acting of any role in his career. Oldman is his usual villain. This isn’t their faults. The script just doesn’t demand a whole lot. The fact that Eli wears sunglasses for 99% of the movie doesn’t lend itself to a lot of non-verbal expression either. It’s a weird development for Washington who can certainly turn in emotional performances when he’s on. Here, he’s in role that’s more of a plot device than a character.
So here’s why you watch the movie. This is a patristic fable. Sure, you think it’s all about a book, but when the end rolls around, you realize that this is in many ways what the early Church was like. It was a bunch of guys wandering around being led by the Holy Spirit to safeguard the deposit of faith that was entrusted to them. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say there’s some likelihood that the Eli character is based on an actual Church Father. I don’t want to say which one, as it might ruin a twist at the end that a surprising number of people didn’t figure out. The movie is also unabashedly on the side of the supernatural. Agent Scully doesn’t show up at the end to show that Eli is delusional or insane. That’s not a spoiler. It’s an encouragement to those who, like many I know, have avoided this movie because they have the expectation of a story that teases with mentions of God and then becomes man-centric. Not so.
This is a marvelous film to watch with your Protestant friends because it forces the consideration of questions that frequently go without notice. What if there weren’t any books? What if the vast majority of the population was illiterate? Would Christianity cease to exist due to the lack of access to Scripture? The funny thing is that most Protestants I know initially think of Book of Eli as a Protestant tale. After some reflection on the above questions, they are at least not as certain about those first impressions. I think it’s astonishingly Catholic (even if the book in question is the wrong translation). We don’t need books to transmit the Faith. More than that, Carnegie makes the point of wanting the book because of how its words can be used to control people. This illustrates how the value of the book in its teaching is only as good as whoever is interpreting it. Catholics should think about this and bring the issue to any conversations dealing with the movie. Do we have an inerrant book with an infallible teaching authority? Or an inerrant book which can mean wildly different things depending upon who reads it?
On the moral scale, there is some violence, including some near-rapes and prostitution. Profanity is sprinkled throughout, including about ten or so f-bombs. No blasphemy. No nudity.
As you can probably tell, I thoroughly enjoyed this movie. It’s not perfect by any means, but it’s a great story and carries a lot of purpose for the Catholic viewer. Watch it and give thought to what it would mean to have a Church in Eli’s world. It’s not altogether impossible that we’ll have to live there for real someday.