'Eat Pray Love': Julia Roberts finds Bali is more complex than paradise

In honor of Julia Robert's new film "Eat Pray Love," based on Elizabeth Gilbert's best-selling memoir, we look at the locations her character visits: Italy, India and Bali.
By Pico Iyer
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, August 13, 2010; 10:46 AM

The beauty of the Bali portrayed in Elizabeth Gilbert's book "Eat Pray Love" is that it is Eden with a swarm of asterisks.

Gilbert tells us openly that for her, the island was a perfect, god-filled sanctuary in which to collect herself, to meditate, to talk to medicine men and warm, spirited female healers. But for them, often, it's a matter of economic challenge and almost coveting the things she had.

The wise medicine man asks, "He a rich man, your boyfriend?" The kind local woman who offers Gilbert counsel and conversation lets her American friend raise almost $18,000 to buy her a new house and then takes the money but shows no signs of buying said house. "Dude, why is life all crazy like this?" asks Yudhi, a Christian pal from Java, as he pines for the suburban New Jersey home he lost when he was deported from the United States as a suspected Islamic terrorist.

Gilbert's book is never more real, in fact, than when investigating our dreams; it acknowledges that wisdom in India might issue from a loud Texan and love in Bali from a nomadic older Brazilian.

The author herself comes across as hopeful, trusting and sometimes "a victim of my own optimism," but seldom as naive, and it is the keen intelligence underlying her quest that gives it its fiber.

On her first trip to Bali, she confesses, she took it to be paradise; on her second, recorded in the book, she does her research and excavates a lot of information about its history of mass rapes, slavery, wars and the week in 1965 when 100,000 were slaughtered during a political convulsion.

"Eat Pray Love" is not about realizing fantasies, but, if anything, about seeing through them to harder and in fact more liberating truths. To call Bali a paradise, Gilbert writes with typically unobtrusive wisdom, "is a bit insulting to reality."

Hollywood is the spiritual home of make-believe, though, so I had assumed that much would get lost in the translation to the screen of Gilbert's shaded Bali. Yet lo and behold, the movie does show that her twinkling local sage is "mostly toothless." It does, in passing, acknowledge that many on the island are still traumatized by the recent terrorist bombing there. And, on the last stop on her itinerary, it does present Julia Roberts looking as washed-out and drawn as the woman the Balinese chide for being in "some broken T-shirt, some broken jeans." If the silver-haired, balding Brazilian of the book is played by Javier Bardem. . . well, that's Hollywood for you.

The Balinese section of Gilbert's book was always going to be the hardest to make fresh, if only because it is about not the complications of searching but the sweetness of finding. And the woman who plays Gilbert's healer friend, Wayan, looks nothing like any Balinese woman I've ever seen. (I wish someone had told the filmmakers that the name is pronounced "Why-ahn.") Indeed, in the necessary shortcuts the film takes in simplifying the action, it glosses over what is to me the most impressive moment in the book: when Gilbert is at once generous enough to raise money for her Balinese friend and honest enough to admit that she has very likely been taken.

Yet when I think of this summer's other fantasy worlds - in "Salt," "Inception," "Knight and Day" and "Iron Man 2" - it's hard to deny that "Eat Pray Love" offers more thought, more feeling, more real pain and more challenge. If Roberts cannot always capture the razor-sharp journalist in Gilbert (a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award before she wrote "Eat Pray Love"), she captures her woundedness so well that it hurts. And if the film decides to concentrate on the romantic arc of Gilbert's Balinese sojourn, it still catches the textures, the colors, the backdrop of the place and, most important, the narrator's voice, with its rare blend of wonder and irreverence.

Besides, destinations are the least important aspect of Gilbert's journey; it's the people she meets who push and teach her. Travel and exoticism don't transform us, she's always sensible enough to suggest; our thoughts and actions do. Gilbert's Bali is human and imperfect in part because she is; anyone can live in paradise, as she implies throughout, but it takes shrewdness, resilience and honest self-questioning to live in the real world.

Will Bali be spoiled now by the millions of American women who may flock there in search of Javier Bardem? Somehow, I don't think so. "???'Isn't Bali spoiled?' is invariably the question that greets the returned traveler," the Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias once wrote. That was in 1937. By then, seven years had passed since filmmaker Andre Roosevelt had written, "This nation of artists is faced with a Western invasion, and I cannot stand idly by and watch its destruction."

In the 26 years that I've been regularly returning to the island, rumors of its imminent demise have been as regular - and as long-lasting - as the full moon. The best thing that could come out of the movie "Eat Pray Love" is that more people might question the sleepwalking that is so often our daily lives - and return, perhaps, to the subtler, richer and even more unflinching book.

Iyer is the author of numerous travel books, including "Video Night in Kathmandu," about Bali and nine other Asian nations.

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