In the golden turd that is Eat Pray Love, everyone helps Julia Roberts find herself so she can then experience true love. For most of her life, she tells us, in narration cut-and-pasted from Elizabeth Gilbert’s fulsome memoir, she would lose herself in men. Now the hunt is on for that missing self. Wherever she goes—Rome, India, Bali—she forms fast friendships with people who instantly unburden themselves. They give to her, and she gives to them. But she gets the close-ups. And the backlighting, which kisses the wisps of her hair and gives her an aureole, a magical aura. In movies, even star vehicles, when a character embarks on a journey of self-discovery, you need to feel at some point as if he or she is truly alone in an alien environment, with none of the normal support systems. But in Eat Pray Love, all the exotic places are sculpted to set off their illustrious visitor. The world meets her more than halfway—probably 98 percent.
Gilbert’s book—with its drama-queen contortions, in which small moments of panic take on cosmic dimensions—isn’t a natural for movies, but it’s not junk uplift. In her wonderful nonfiction book The Last American Man, Gilbert indulged both her male-hero-worshipping bent and her envy of a man who could forgo all dependencies and be fully autonomous. In Eat Pray Love, after fleeing her marriage and falling for a handsome actor who found her a tad clingy, Gilbert stumbled into a scenario that resonated with women in search of their own autonomy—especially white women with a bit of money. She traveled to Italy, where she stopped feeling guilty about stuffing herself with pasta and ice cream. Then she traveled to an ashram in India, where she purged all those toxins and cleared her cluttered mind by learning to “forgive herself.” Then she ended up in Bali with a toothless medicine man, where she spent part of each day meditating and part in search of real pleasure. When Signor Right (from Brazil) shows up, she finally loves herself enough to be able to love him back.
Ryan Murphy, the creator of Glee and Nip/Tuck, has an agreeable camp sensibility, but when he sets out to direct a “woman’s picture” and play it straight, the results are stupefying. He has no clue how to shoot the scenes between his heroine, Elizabeth Gilbert, and the Adonis played by James Franco, who has never shown so little of his puckish intelligence. The Italian abbondanza eating scenes are edited like Riunite commercials, the food so obviously “styled” that it kills the piggy fun. Try not to hoot when the gaunt Roberts makes a bring-on-the-flab speech to persuade the equally slender Tuva Novotny to eat pizza, even if they get “muffin tops.” Murphy opens the India sequence with a Julia-amid-the-beggars music video (the song is M.I.A.’s “Boyz”) that dwarfs even the pizza scene for gross insensitivity.
Richard Jenkins and Javier Bardem (“Joo are afraid to love again!”) are artful enough to muffle all the clunks, but the only time I smiled was when Michael Cumpsty, as a swami, showed off—for a second—his crack British timing. In the most convincing moment in Eat Pray Love, Roberts’s Gilbert finds herself too distracted to meditate; in the least convincing, she sits in the lotus position wearing a beatific smile. No wonder we can never relax and see the world through her eyes. They’ve cast the only woman on Earth who can make Elizabeth Gilbert seem easy.
There is too much hell in Yael Hersonski’s documentary A Film Unfinished to begin to evoke it adequately. It’s assembled around reels discovered in a German vault: Nazi footage of life inside the Warsaw Ghetto—half a million starving Jews squeezed into three square miles—circa 1942, before most of the population was shipped to Treblinka and the remainder lost their lives fighting back. But the footage was not meant to be the basis of a fly-on-the-wall portrait. Many of the scenes were staged—by directors in uniforms, with guns—to create a work of propaganda. No one knows what its scenario would have been, but the best guess is the Nazis meant to show well-off Jews eating and performing their weird Jew rituals and going about their Jew lives while poor Jews starved to death under their feet. And no one knows why the film remained unfinished. I would like to think that the footage was too terrible for even the Nazi propagandists to bear—that the hard stares of passersby into the camera chilled them as much as it does us, 68 years later. Vain hope. The horror of A Film Unfinished transcends even its images of suffering and death, among the most obscene ever captured. It becomes a meditation on the dual nature of film, on a “reality” at once true and false, essential and tainted.