Defender of the faith

Trailers, like the one above, have left me a bit in the dark about the premise of "The Book of Eli." Clearly, it's the future. The apocalypse has passed. And, apparently, the Road Warrior has ditched his ride and is now black. Based on those details alone, I knew I wanted to see the film, which opened today. (As I've mentioned, I like apocalyptic films.) What I couldn't determine was whether the film's theme was as biblical as the title suggests. Turns out it really couldn't be any more so -- at least not on the surface.

That's because the object that others would kill to have and Denzel Washington's character, Eli, will kill to protect is the last known copy of the Bible. I know this because the LA Times tells me so:

Eli's first full-on slaughter of bloodthirsty roadside thugs is shown in a cleverly sustained single take, in silhouette. Very satisfying. Gory, but satisfying.

For some, this genre picture will come with the bonus of its conspicuous and heavy-duty religiosity.

It is about the Word and who controls it. But "The Book of Eli" works, even if the preservation of Christianity isn't high on your personal post-apocalypse bucket list. Establishing its storytelling rules clearly and well, the film simply is better, and better-acted, than the average end-of-the-world fairy tale.

That's from a less-than-satisfying review today by Michael Phillips. Yesterday, though, the LAT wrote a feature on Washington and the film that addresses more questions about the core premise of "The Book of Eli" -- i.e. why an underground war is being waged over control of the Bible.

(No, it's not the pandering that Variety seems to suggest, which Hollywood has been doing for longer than people will admit.)

The answer is inconclusive, but not untested:

That the actor is a self-professed Christian gives the role a life-imitating-art feel. While the movie's religious message is ambiguous -- is the use of the Bible as a key plot object meant to show its sanctity or simply that it can be exploited? -- "Eli" represents a rare chance for Washington. It's one of the actor's first parts in which he gets the frequent opportunity to quote and even improvise lines from the Bible, like the one from Corinthians that "we walk by faith, not by sight," which he added because a pastor he likes uses it.

According to Washington and one of the Hughes brothers who directed, Allen, the studio was uncomfortable with the extent of the religious themes in "The Book of Eli" and actually toned it down:

Washington's presence, in turn, helped get the Hugheses -- who return with their first feature in nine years -- over the religion hump. "Denzel was the only guy who could solve the problem," says Allen Hughes. "There are a lot of Bible quotations, and there's a certain nobility that comes with him that mitigates that."

I'm not really sure I like the suggestion that only certain actors can comfortably quote the Bible on the silver screen. Then again, I'm glad Pauly Shore -- if he was ever a performer -- didn't spend "Encino Man" talking about the seven seals and the seven angels and the Lion of Judah. That would have felt very wrong.

The LA Times' feature doesn't explore Washington's Christian faith in the same way that, say, Christianity Today did. But reporter Steven Zeitchik did a good job shedding light on questions I'd had since seeing the first trailer for this film.

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