Sunday, January 24, 2010
I believe it was the psychologist Heinz Kohut who introduced the world to the concept of "good enough parenting". The Book of Eli could be considered an example of good enough film-making. It manages to get its various characters from point A to point B, provide some interesting images, execute fight scenes with relative skill and convey it's underlying message(s) well enough. It's not a great movie though.
Eli is the name of the film's protagonist (Denzel Washington), who we first meet as he preys upon an ill-fated feline in a forest as ash drifts down from the sky (a nod to 9/11). The cat in question is later shared with a mouse (talk about a role reversal!) as Eli enjoys some Al Green and a read of the Book from the movie title. It's 30 years from now and some sort of man-made apocalypse, possibly brought about by religion, has had a really bad effect on personal hygiene, fashion sense, and civility. It has also contributed to a new diet fad (cannibalism). Eli strides through images of hell on earth: miles of rusting vehicles, grinning skeletons and empty dwellings. A voice has told him to head west in order to take his book to a place where it can do great good for the world.
When his Ipod runs out of juice, he heads into a little Wild-West looking town to get a recharge. This town, like most towns in these movies, is run by a strong man named Carnegie (Gary Oldman). Like Eli, Carnegie likes a good book (pun intended) and is looking for a particular title that he believes will increase his powers of social control and facilitate the expansion of his rule to other towns. Wouldn't you know, the book Carnegie is looking for is the one Eli has. The problem is, Eli has no intention of sharing his book with the likes of Carnegie and has a knack with blades and bullets that makes him tough to persuade through sicking tough guys on him.
Carnegie next tries to seduce Eli through sending him Solara (Mila Kunis) who agrees to be used this way in order to protect her blind mother (Jennifer Biels). Solara is rejected sexually by Eli but does spend the night with him and is introduced to the power of prayer and the book in question. Eli decides to continue his westward journey killing anyone who tries to stop him on his way out of town with Solara tagging along as initially a damsel-in-distress and later a companion and willing student of the book's content. The movie shifts into full-on Mad Max mode as the two are pursued by Carnegie and his thugs in big vehicles (guess carbon footprints are no longer a concern for people). There's a humorous scene with a couple of fine old cannibals and a huge shoot-out complete with a giant machine gun and grenade launcher.
To make a long story short, Eli does manage to make it to his destination and delivers the book (though not in the way you'd imagine). Carnegie, at a moment of apparent triumph gets what's coming to him in a twist that is sure to astonish. Like The Sixth Sense, it's the kind of twist that makes you want to watch the movie again to see if you can notice any signs that it was coming that you might have missed.
Here's a few reflections on themes, metaphors, and images that align with aspects of Baha'i teaching.
Religion as a Cause of a global calamity: Religion's contribution to the end of the world is only hinted at in the film, but given current events it is not so far fetched. The Universal House of Justice acknowledges this:
"With every day that passes, danger grows that the rising fires of religious prejudice will ignite a worldwide conflagration the consequences of which are unthinkable. Such a danger civil government, unaided, cannot overcome. Nor should we delude ourselves that appeals for mutual tolerance can alone hope to extinguish animosities that claim to possess Divine sanction."
(The Universal House of Justice, 2002 April, To the World's Religious Leaders, p. 5)
Manipulation of Religion in the Pursuit of Power: Carnegie describes religion as "weapon" as he tries to explain to a henchmen that Eli's book is more than just a book. Carnegie sees possession of the book as a means of controlling others, reminding us that "it's happened before. It can happen again". Baha'u'llah comments on the potential for religion to be manipulated in this way in strong terms:
"Leaders of religion, in every age, have hindered their people from attaining the shores of eternal salvation, inasmuch as they held the reins of authority in their mighty grasp. Some for the lust of leadership, others through want of knowledge and understanding, have been the cause of the deprivation of the people."
(Baha'u'llah, The Kitab-i-Iqan, p. 14)
The Black Madonna/Black Messiah: I've discussed this phenomenon exemplified by several recent films in a previous post. Eli's character definitely fits into this concept, embodying qualities attributed to people of African descent in the Baha'i Writings such as this selection:
"The qualities of heart so richly possessed by [African Americans] are much needed in the world today-their great capacity for faith, their loyalty and devotion to their religion when once they believe, their purity of heart. God has richly endowed them, and their great contribution...is much needed..." (Compilations, Lights of Guidance, p. 532)
Steadfastness in the path of God: Watching Eli's single-minded and resolute march towards his goal called to mind many selections from the Baha'i Writings. One of them was the following:
"Whoso hath recognized Me, will arise and serve Me with such determination that the powers of earth and heaven shall be unable to defeat his purpose." (Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 137)
The Oneness of Religion: The Book of Eli has been viewed by some as a "Christian" movie. However, there are aspects of the film that suggest it has a more universal message. Eli for instance could be seen as a more complex figure (his kaffiyeh and scimitar-like blade evoke an Islamic image, while his hand to hand combat has a Samurai feel to it). Also, an important scene near the end of the film includes Eli's book among a diverse selection of books that have similar significance in other faith traditions and cultures. An interview with the directors of the movie on National Public Radio supports the notion of Eli embodying a broader concept of spirituality. In the words of the Universal House of Justice:
"It is evident that growing numbers of people are coming to realize that the truth underlying all religions is in its essence one. This recognition arises not through a resolution of theological disputes, but as an intuitive awareness born from the ever widening experience of others and from a dawning acceptance of the oneness of the human family itself. Out of the welter of religious doctrines, rituals and legal codes inherited from vanished worlds, there is emerging a sense that spiritual life, like the oneness manifest in diverse nationalities, races and cultures, constitutes one unbounded reality equally accessible to everyone" (The Universal House of Justice, 2002 April, To the World's Religious Leaders, p. 4)
What's your review and/or reflections on The Book of Eli?