Julia Roberts in Eat Pray Love
Based on Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling book, the title refers to the twelve months the author spent to take stock, enjoy and marvel at the world, and to reach a kind of self-forgiveness and acceptance. She was four months in Rome (eat), four months in India (pray) and four months in Bali (love).
What makes the film easier for many audiences is the fact that Julia Roberts plays Elizabeth. Twenty years ago, she was the glamorous Pretty Woman. Ten years ago, she was the feisty saviour of victims, Erin Brockovich. Now she offers a character for women in mid-life who want to take an initiative to discover their better selves. Julia Roberts, looks beautiful at all times, but harried at first, becoming more radiant and then, without make up, her older, even plainer, self. Though we are conscious that it is Julia Roberts we are watching, she does transform herself into Elisabeth Gilbert making the journey credible.
Though the film is long, the first episodes are rather hurried, too hurried to really grasp the personalities of her husband who loves her (Billy Crudup) but whom she divorces, of her younger, actor partner (James Franco). We get glimpses (and during the journey some flashbacks) of the relationships and why they failed. Viola Davis is solid as her best friend.
Then the film settles down to indulge us with the vistas of Rome and plenty of food, glorious food, Italian-style. With good friends and learning the difference between entertainment and real pleasure (Italians pointing out that this is a mistake that busy Americans make), Liz puts on the kilos with happy abandon. And, then she is in India.
At the ashram in India, Liz assumes the dress styles, the rituals, the manual work of service (yes, that is Julia Roberts scrubbing floors), the silences, the hospitality and the meditative space that leads her to a conclusion that ‘God is within me, as me’, a reflection worth some more reflection. The film captures the colours of India, even at a wedding, and should entice happy visitors to Italy to take a second look at their affluent world in comparison with the poverty and hardships of India.
There is a standout sequence in the Indian episode, a clip that could stand alone for use in seminars on alcoholism and self-improvement. The writing of the film takes off and is brought to dramatic power by the performance of Richard Jenkins.
What do you do when you have purged yourself of some spiritual ailments? Go to Bali, seek the help of a wise man and some alternative healing – and allow yourself to fall in love. That requires inner freedom, an acknowledgement of past failures but, most importantly, discovering self-forgiveness. In the beauty of Bali and with Javier Bardem on hand, it is, after many difficulties, possible.
The trouble with Eat Pray Love is that one wants to respond to the character and how she handles her journey rather than sit back and accept the film and Liz Gilbert. This is very much a First World story, the aftermath of New Age fashions and the discovery of Eastern mystic practices if not Eastern religion. Very few (very few) women can afford the time, let alone the expenses for such a journey. This is the spiritual trek of a wealthy woman. While holiday and break are necessary, and Liz is introduced to some mysticism and asceticism in India, we ask, ‘to what purpose?’. By the time she has come to terms with herself and found love, we wonder what the moral bases of her life consist of, what is the nature of her integrity and the tension between some absolutes she has discovered and the relative importance of principles to be held on to or discarded.
Many men in the audience have found sharing this journey a tedious movie experience. Many women will be encouraged to follow Elizabeth Gilbert in her search in as much as their means allow them. Her story, book and film, is at least an attempt, in a pluralist world that has become even more pluralist, to attempt a search for life values.