'Eat Pray Love': Julia Roberts's journey to Rome is cliched but delicious

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 13, 2010; 10:48 AM

One of the first people Elizabeth Gilbert encounters on moving to Rome is her new landlady: an old Italian woman, squat and pimpled, filling a bathtub with a boiling teakettle. Only one thing really matters in life, she lectures Liz: la famiglia!!

Mamma mia!! Bring on the Italian stereotypes.

And the movie "Eat Pray Love" delivers them in spades. There are the derriere-pinching men in the piazzas, the housewives screaming in the outdoor market, the old crones in black - all of which still exist but hardly define current-day Rome.

Struggling to learn the language, Gilbert (Julia Roberts) is taught that Italians are a happy lot (partial to "dolce far niente," the joy of doing nothing). And the proper way of speaking Italian: not just with words, but "con i gesti."

Cue the waving arms!

Still, even with the cliches, Rome is lovingly filmed, a feast for the eyes.

And, of course, for the stomach. Gilbert has moved to Italy as part of her effort to rediscover happiness and wonder. In New York, she had lost her taste for life, cruising on autopilot through an empty marriage.

In Italy, food is her new love. She is seduced by its gorgeousness. The camera lavishes attention on the plates at sunlit trattorias: the pink folds of prosciutto served with sweet figs; a golden fried mozzarella that crunches at the touch of a fork. In a lightly comical moment, Gilbert practically venerates a swirl of spaghetti with tomato sauce and basil. The opera music swells, and a blizzard of Parmesan floats down from above.

The image marks her evolution, her new ability to enjoy food and wine alone - or rather, in her own company.

The photography captures the extraordinary aesthetic sense of Italians; even an item as simple as a fried artichoke becomes a thing of beauty.

Somewhere between the carciofi alla giudia and the gelato, Gilbert begins to lose her uptight New York ways. She grows. Literally: She acquires a "muffin top" above her jeans, and she doesn't care. Off she goes with a friend to buy bigger pants.

"I'm just through with the guilt" of calorie-counting, she cheerfully declares.

The city featured in "Eat Pray Love" is the Rome of every American's fondest holiday memories. The city is drenched in color: the golden wash of the sunlight, the ochres and pinks of the medieval buildings. The camera caresses the curves of the fountains in the Piazza Navona, conveys the intimacy of the alleylike streets, the ancient majesty of the Colosseum.

There is no graffiti, no snarled traffic, no cigarette butts on the streets - not even many tourists.

The city's beauty, of course, truly is spellbinding, as Italians and tourists alike would admit. Still, this is a lush, postcard Rome, the antidote to Gilbert's flavorless life in New York. In the real Rome, it does occasionally rain.

But the film, to its credit, also captures something deeper about living amid such history-infused buildings.

Suffering from a romantic breakup, Gilbert finds consolation in an unexpected place: the mausoleum of the emperor Caesar Augustus. She picks her way with her friends through the ruined shell, now occupied by a few homeless men.

Looking at the rubble, and contemplating what the building witnessed, she begins to gain perspective.

"I was reassured," she recounts. "Maybe my life hasn't been so chaotic."

She hears a voice beyond the hand-waving Italian of the streets and the melodic Italian of the trattorias. It's the voice of a city that has also suffered, and survived. For this former resident of the Eternal City, that's where the movie truly struck a chord.

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