Posted by: Mark Nielsen | August 13, 2010

Eat, Pray, Sweat: Quest for Love (or love) Continues

Eat, Pray, Brood - Even Roberts can't add depth to a shallow script and stock Hollywood characters.

I’m worried.

Unlike the vast majority of North American males, I’ve actually read the original Eat, Pray, Love book upon which the forthcoming Julia Roberts juggernaut movie is based. I liked it alot, in fact. Author Elizabeth Gilbert has the soul of a poet, yet the toughness of a mama bear from the projects who refuses to let herself be exploited.

But film producers are famous for butchering good nonfiction and historical books about matters of faith and spirituality. So I’m worried. And this CNN/Entertainment Weekly review doesn’t set me at ease one bit.

I’ve also been to Italy, and to Hawaii (not much like Bali, but gorgeous-Pacific-island-wise, it’s the best I can do), and to Egypt.

“Egypt?” you ask. “Why does that matter?”

Because it shares historic/colonial similarities with India. Also because Bali –as part of Indonesia, the most populous Muslim nation– (India and Indonesia are the other two countries featured in the book besides Italy) –has many of the other Third World religio-socio-economic challenges that can be seen in Egypt, Lebanon, Yemen, central Africa and so forth… or in Central and South America, for that matter, minus the religious conflicts.

I have not just experienced the touristy bits of these nations, either, but have seen and documented the genuinely poor and tragic areas as well. What? Are there poor people in Hawaii? You bet. If you make up your mind to see them…

Even before reading the book, I did plenty of eating, praying, and loving –in the same intentional, meditative, selfless and transformative way that Elizabeth Gilbert writes of in her bestseller. (For instance, there was this one local wild boar dish in Italy’s Umbrian region last summer that changed my life… oh, never mind. Take my word for it. God is in the details, no matter where you go.)

So I’m worried. Because reducing books or movies on travel, culture-clash and spirituality to an “Under the Tuscan Sun” level of trendiness and self-serving “growth” can be not only foolish, but ultimately counterproductive — not much help at all for the residents of these developing nations, who frankly deserve better. Heather King, a Catholic friend-of-a-friend, wrote a Facebook Note this week expressing a similar concern.

I’m not saying Julia Roberts, her production company, or even Ms. Gilbert intend to do this, or to be this shallow.

But it’s bound to happen a fair amount, nevertheless.  In a culture where “Christianity Lite” is all the rage –and a week-long mission trip to help with Hurricane Katrina cleanup, returning at night to your indoor-plumbing motel, qualifies as “roughing it”– the disappointment and East/West mis-communication possibilities in these cultural exchanges are many. Because genuine engagement with developing world political/religious complexities is not for the faint of heart.

We all crave significance. But Dorothy Day/Doctors Without Borders style significance is more important –and difficult– than quick-fix explorations of the big, wide world, a world that most Americans have until now gotten used to either ignoring or over-glamorizing. And there’s a tricky difference between small “s” spirituality and the “Big S” Holy Spirit that Christians say they believe in (but often don’t know much about).

Nevertheless, maybe any old half-assed effort is better than none at all. Who knows? But I have my doubts. If Liz Gilbert’s good pal Oprah Winfrey herself couldn’t run a small school in Africa without getting into hot water– with the parents of these needy kids, no less! — then what are a few thousand disgruntled middle-class female soul-searchers going to be able to do?

Personally, I think this movie is timed perfectly, to snag all the pre-grieving Oprah fans looking for something to latch onto as they fret about what they’ll do once Ms. O moves on to greener pastures… green as in heavily monetized, like Oprah’s planned “O-Vision” cable network. (Okay,  that’s not what the network will be called –but if anyone over there had any imagination, that’s what they SHOULD call it. Might even get a handful of men stopping by, wondering if it’s a new R-rated erotica channel.)

Off my soapbox… back to the Eat, Pray, Weep movie:  I also tend to wonder if Julia Roberts will have the guts to look as ugly, or go as deep emotionally, as –for example– Charlize Theron did in “Monster”. Like, in the Eat, Pray “breakthrough” scene [spoiler alert!] where Gilbert had to meditate while getting stung by hundreds of mosquitoes: will Julia work with real stunt mosquitoes, or just more CGI fakery?

(“Mosquito wrangler”… now there’s a crappy entry-level job in the movies…)

I think it will be CGI, shot on an air-conditioned soundstage with sprayed-on sweat. None of that Apocalypse Now-type obsessive, genuine on-location danger or malaria risk. Julia’s worth too much dough to to many people.

Plus, beyond all the hype, this is still just a big-budget Hollywood love story, unless I miss my guess. The trailers feature Javier Bardem… not some odd-looking little Indonesian nobody portraying the remarkable Balinese shaman who so transformed Liz Gilbert’s life. No. This is a summer chick flick about the “beautiful people”.

For example, I think Bardem is younger than  Gilbert’s husband was when they met, by a significant margin. Besides which, Gilbert’s relationship with the handsome, sophisticated Latin lover is quite secondary to the overall message of healing and human kindness that the book is mainly about. But I don’t trust Hollywood to get that part right. They gotta do it as a romantic comedy — just to get us all set up for the sequel, “Committed”, based on the book about marriage that Gilbert followed Eat, Pray, Love with. Plus, there ain’t much that’s visually exciting about watching a woman pray alone in a run-down but beautifully genuine Indian temple.

No, I think cultural colonialism, reductive moviemaking, and middle-class paternalistic condescension are the big traps here, bound to catch more than just a few of us.

To put a fine point on it: compassion and authentic spirituality are not in themselves at all profitable — or at least not nearly as profitable as a yummy pizza from Naples, nor an ashram where wealthy Westerners can go on retreat for a week and claim they became enlightened, (in-between their massage session and their indigenous-recipe organic cooking class).

Love is costly. The powerful, unsentimental kind of love –the kind that changes people (or changes the unjust social conditions in which they’re forced to live) –costs more than most modern, distracted, idle moviegoers are willing to pay.

So instead of genuine experience, we settle for a facsimile of love — complete with a large buttered popcorn in our lap. This is what we choose to accept as a substitute. Fewer mosquitoes, you see…

BTW, I’m thinking of spending a year in Sudan’s Darfur region , and then peacemaking with pirates in Somalia, and then teaching schoolkids with twenty-year-old textbooks on a Lakota Sioux reservation in South Dakota. Anyone want to make a movie about me?



  1. Another perspective:

    • Thanks dave.
      All my best friends are either ethnic Italian clothes-horses of my mother’s generation, or faux-granola peasant dress wearers of my own. Not surprised, therefore, that Bitch magazine wanted to weigh in on this movie.
      Take music: Grunge was a costume, an attitude. As opposed to Punk/penitence/pizza-as-prime-passion, which are lifestyles. Then there is real life, which can’t be reduced to any silly little trend, but can be repackaged and sold as a substitute to those who don’t have to worry about putting food on their table and a roof over their heads.

  2. Okay, so I saw the movie late Friday nite (opening nite… only other time I ever did that was for a Lord of the Rings movie… not quite the same).

    I was one of about four men in a crowd of about 85 women. (The other three were all clearly on dates.)

    All whining aside, it was a pleasant movie. Not earth-shatteringly moving like I experienced with The Mission, Wings of Desire, and a handful of other movies on spirituality. But not terrible. Saccharine at times — and yes, Julia did not get fat and flea-bitten, as I suspected she would not. But it reminded me of some of the sweet and useful things from the book. I’ve been telling myself “Atraversiamo!” all weekend. So like I said: see it, don’t see it… either choice won’t change your life.
    Or go to India yourself. A bit more complicated, but you’ll never be the same again…

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