So The Book of Eli is a post-apocalyptic fable about faith, the Word and, ultimately, the triumph of the printing press. Sure, Denzel has the knife, the mystical connection to The Book, defends women from predation, and can shoot a vulture from the sky with his handy bow and arrow. But believe me, the real hero of this flick is the printing press. (Which was invented by the Chinese! See? Get it??)
You can read this film in one of two ways: a religious fable about the enduring nature of the Word to triumph over godless evil or the triumph of humanism and western culture over the petty wrangling of global illiteracy and ignorance.
No doubt, Eli is a religious-ish man on a quest to save The Book. He prays. He resists the blandishments of the flesh; while kicking ass, he quotes Scripture, murmuring about accountability in the afterlife after shoving some dude’s nose into his skull; he reads the Book every night and protects it with his life. He gruffly explains to Solara (Mila Kundis) that faith is going where you don’t know where to go. (Or something like that. Whatever. It’s about as clear as ‘belief in things that are unseen.’)
The irreligious psycho Carnegie (Oldham) is also a man of faith. Carnegie is a man with a vision; he is a man who recognizes the patterns and traditions of prayer but wants to exploit it, in much the same way he exploits the fresh water springs he hides or the flesh of his blind concubine’s daughter.
The Word in The Book of Eli is an intangible and elusive thing, which makes me wonder if those calling this movie a piece of religious propaganda ever went to Sunday School. We actually don’t see much of its religious power. No one worships, no one preaches. Mostly, the Word (and the faith that it is supposed to represent) is a nice relic from the Old World, before the war. It is, however, particularly effective when you’re about to kick ass or have yours kicked. Literally embodying the scripture that says the word of God must be written in your heart and mind, Eli quotes the Book from memory. Quoting the Word separates him from those in Carnegie’s world.
But Carnegie knows the Book, too. Aptly named, he is part post-apocalyptic land baron and part religious ringmaster and old enough (like Eli) to remember that religion is used as a force of social control. With the Book, you don’t need henchmen, guns or weapons. The Book itself is a weapon to manipulate and soothe the ravaged populace into submission. This sounds familiar enough to me, with the likes of Pat Robertson and other crazy religious leaders going around urging violence on a god’s behalf today. In fact we learn that the cataclysmic event that burned the earth and turned people blind and sick was perhaps caused by a religious conflict, which led to the eradication of all books (especially religious books.)
In the movie’s climactic fight scene, Carnegie forces Eli to relinquish the Book and misquotes scripture as he fires a bullet into Eli’s belly to prove he is just a man and not the physical embodiment of the Word. It seems the Word has been defeated by gangrenous capitalism.
But it’s in the film’s last 10-15 minutes that the alternate reading of this film becomes clear. The Book itself is a burden. Once he is free of the oversized, leather-bound and locked Book, Eli remembers that it is not the doctrine of the Book that matters but the internalization of its message: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. He reduces the whole of the Bible to manners. (Eli’s manners, by the way, are impeccable.) In sum, the Word is about being kind to one another. Carnegie, meanwhile, takes the Book, struggles to unlock it and discovers it is all in Braille. (Neat twist! Eli is blind but he can ‘see’! How…like a parable he is.) Carnegie’s blind concubine refuses to read it to him and his corrupt world descends into chaos. We last see the Book laying open, unread and useless on Carnegie’s desk.
As a spiritual document, the Book is useless but in the hands of those who are trying to preserve the printed legacy of Western culture (or any remaining culture at all) the memorized verses of the Bible are priceless. On a fortified Alcatraz, Eli recites the Book to an erstwhile cultural librarian who writes it all down and then prints it on an old school printing press. Eli’s version of the Bible is then bound and put on a shelf next to a copy of the Koran, the Talmud and other religious books.
So the sum of religious conflict and doctrine lands on a shelf on a shattered island in the hands of a few bibliophiles and blind Eli is dead, swathed in a white robe and shaved bald, literally becoming the Monk he was meant to be.
As for the Word? I doubt the culturally literate are keeping the books and pieces of art in an armed Alcatraz to create an afterschool literacy program. Keeping the artifacts of culture away from the rabble is a nice jab at cultural elites (folks like us?) and neatly rewrites the revolutionary power of the printing press – which actually removed literacy from the sole province of the privileged. The only other person who followed Eli is an illiterate urchin (Solara) who sets off toward home, carrying Eli’s damaged iPod, his sword and, we presume, his Word: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Upon this rock perhaps the world will be rebuilt. Amen.