Posted by: Titus Presler | January 24, 2011

“Eat Pray Love” film: Thin but with some authentic moments

The current film “Eat Pray Love”, starring Julia Roberts as Elizabeth Gilbert on a quest to find meaning for her life and in the process to find herself is neither compelling nor profound.  Yet in the genre of popular film it is a bit unusual in highlighting for a general audience the benefits of engaging difference in the contemporary world, and at one point it hints that serving others is central to personal identity and meaning.

I saw the film on a Qatar Airways flight to Doha, en route to Peshawar, Pakistan, and the Oryx Entertainment synopsis of the film said this: “Liz Gilbert is a woman on a quest to travel the world while rediscovering and reconnecting with her true self.  She eats in Italy, prays in India and finds love in Bali in this life-affirming journey.”

That journey was premised, obviously, on encountering difference and the notion that in going to different places one is going to discover something important.  I was reminded of being struck once again, this time while getting on the plane in New York, by the continuing emphasis of HSBC, “the world’s local bank,” in stressing – whether sincerely or simply as a marketing tool – the centrality of encountering and affirming the phenomenon of difference in its work.  A current large billboard in JFK Airport reads, “Since 1865, we’ve understood that differences are what make the world such a remarkable place.”

I’ve not read Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, “Eat Pray Love,” published by Viking in 2006 and a New York Times bestseller for over 200 weeks, nor have I heard her speak.  I’ve heard both book and movie critiqued as shallow and self-indulgent, and I would agree that the movie is on the flimsy and trite side overall.  It’s also been recognized that Gilbert’s pilgrimage – and I do think we can call it that – is a pilgrimage for the privileged.  She had the time and the leisure that money can buy to undertake a year of wandering, prompted by an impulsive move out of what even the movie trailer squib describes as a “happy marriage.”

Yet I’m glad that the popular audience that superstar Julia Roberts guarantees has at least a few authentic moments to witness and consider:

1. The portrayal of Liz Gilbert after she leaves her marriage as breaking down in tears for a candid and unadorned conversation with God: Naming God as God and the highlighting of a personal encounter with God in prayer is not very common in a star-vehicle film, and Roberts is able to convey a sense of honesty and vulnerability in the encounter.

2. The depiction of seeking God – and meaning and self – at an ashram in India headed by a woman guru: It echoes the Beatles’ fairly shallow popularization of Indian gurus, but it also demonstrates just how powerful that popularization continues to be several decades later.  At the ashram God is not named, and the spiritual dimension as portrayed in the film is vague and gauzy.  If memory serves, Gilbert ends up seeing God inside herself in a way that seems to be standard-issue New Age myopia, but at least there’s a show of trying to find meaning within an ancient religious practice.

3. The depiction of Gilbert reaching out to help a single-mother healer in Bali by raising money from friends so that mother and child can have a stable home for the first time: In her fund-raising letter she says something about how a journey into the wider world in search of meaning brings one to a commitment to “tutti,” to all people.  There’s a bit of the Lady Bountiful in Gilbert’s approach, yet also a sense of mutuality in that she’s reaching out to someone from whom she’s aware that she has received much.  There’s a similar mutuality with the Balinese shaman who got her started on the quest in the first place.  And mutuality, after all, is a high priority in authentic mission.

The soliloquy, doubtless from the book, that closes the film is not one that I recall in detail, but it  highlights the importance of searching, of leaving behind the familiar and the comfortable, of engaging authentically all the people and experiences one encounters in the search.  Gilbert terms it “the physics of quest.”  Again, the film is not a robust or profound depiction of a spiritual quest, but amid lots of much more trivial entertainments it may give some pause for thought.  And that’s good.

On the subject of pilgrimage, a goldfish pond at Edwardes College in Peshawar bears this inscription from the poet Kabir: “I laugh when I hear that the fish in the water is thirsty.  I laugh when I hear that men go on pilgrimage to find God.”  The obvious point is that all one needs to know of God is within one’s own experience, that God is not distant but close at hand, that geographical travel is extraneous to knowing God.  The complexity that Kabir’s observation does not include is that the experience of any one person is limited, as is the insight that any one person has into that experience.  We need access to the experience of others’ encounter with God, and the experience of the other is shaped by the other’s culture, which in turn is shaped by, yes, other places.  That is why pilgrimage is a perennial impulse in the human quest for God.  Again, the encounter with difference turns out to be pivotal.

Some days after seeing the film, it occurs to me that the eating, praying and loving in the journey as portrayed are disconcertingly disconnected from each other.  In Bali, it’s not at all clear that Gilbert is carrying forward anything from her praying in India, and the initial eating in Italy seems, to this viewer anyway, as simply a hedonistic prelude.  In a Christian vision, eating, praying and loving are one seamless fabric in the Christ event – “The Son of man came eating and drinking . . . Take, eat, this is my body . . . Pray then in this way . . . Love one another as I have loved you.”

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