Soul Food: An Eat Pray Love Experience

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In 2008, amid hype, hoopla, and hysteria, I read Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat Pray Love. The highly praised memoir chronicles Gilbert's physical and emotional journey from Italy to India to Bali, where she seeks gustatory, spiritual, and romantic fulfillment.

While I liked the book and enjoyed every step along her personal path, I didn't exactly get what all the buildup was about. Maybe I couldn't completely relate to Gilbert's internal crisis. Her marriage was failing and her world was collapsing. She needed to let go of her inner struggle and find balance. She had to forgive herself for not being everything to everyone and make peace with her imperfect self. I got it. But unlike so many of Gilbert's faithful disciples, I didn't get it—and I certainly hadn't lived it.

For me, the book was more of a tempting globe-trotting guide than a voyeuristic diary. So I was thrilled upon being offered a little taste of Gilbert's titillating travels for the Eat Pray Love film junket. Along with a guest, I was invited to Napa, where we would feast on Italian food, experience a unique prayer event, and of course interview the acclaimed stars of the film. I can't pretend that my two days and nights in the Tuscany-inspired vineyards were as life-altering and earth-shattering as Gilbert's yearlong trip, but it was certainly an eye-opening experience. And I relished every amazing moment.

I LOVE This Movie
We watched the movie in a small, old-fashioned theater in the charming town of St. Helena. Seated next to my fiancé in a cuddly velour chair built for two, I had a glass of red wine in one cup holder, a glass of white in the other, a bag of popcorn between my legs, and a cup of gelato in each hand. (I could see that the "eat" part of this experience was well under way.)

I expected that I would like the movie. What woman wouldn't? Julia Roberts, Billy Crudup, James Franco, and Javier Bardem seem like a recipe for cinematic success. Sprinkle in Glee creator Ryan Murphy's writing and direction and you're likely to get something as delicious as the many bowls of pasta Roberts devours throughout the film (she later told us it was six in total). But I hadn't anticipated how much I would love the characters, the destinations, and Gilbert's heartwarming story as told on the silver screen.

Unlike Gilbert's rocky road to redemption, Roberts' performance is fierce and flawless. I believed every moment of her awesome adventure. I believed that she was consumed with a desire to eat a whole pizza pie in Italy. "We got to Naples at eight in the morning, and I proceeded to start my day with eight entire slices of pizza in 45 minutes. .... Liz was so excited to be there and eating this pizza, and so I would find myself eating an entire slice in one take. I don't know why I thought that as a good idea," Roberts told us during our Napa press conference.

I believed that while both in and out of character, Roberts traversed new ground in India. "There were extraordinary women dressed in bright colors and jewelry. They looked elaborate and elegant and profoundly stunning. We asked what the story was behind the bright colors, embroidery, and jewels. And [one woman] said it shows that she's married," said Roberts, who was moved by this cultural notion. Similarly, there's a scene in the film in which Liz watches an ornate Indian wedding in awe and admiration.

I believed that Liz found the balance she was seeking in beautiful Bali. Because the movie was filmed in all three locations, there's an authenticity to every scene and performance. "It was almost a necessity of emotional evolution to [shoot in all three countries]. It was important for us to re-create the steps that she took and understand how she got from one point and place to the next, and how the relationships evolved and what she got from one country to the next," Roberts said.

"It was all such a gift—in Bali, in particular. I think we were the first time a film has ever shot there—which I thought was crazy. So we had to create our own infrastructure," said filmmaker Murphy. Adding that Julia Roberts brought a heightened sense of passion everywhere she went, Murphy continued, "Wherever Ms. Roberts goes, there are screaming throngs and paparazzi. I wasn't used to that, and I marveled at it. From that came such wonderful moments. I just loved seeing the [outpouring of] love. That's what happens in a movie like this."

But it wasn't only fans around the globe worshiping the A-list actress. Even her co-stars had words of adoration for the Oscar winner. "She's a very present actor with a lot of intelligence, charm, and wit. And as an actor, I am always grateful to work with someone who makes you more engaged. That was a really nice experience," said Crudup, who plays Liz's ex-husband.

Maybe it was all the wine I consumed, but I couldn't help but liken the film to porn—food and travel porn, that is. Everything looked so indescribably delectable, beautiful, and rich. I lusted for the cantaloupe with prosciutto that Roberts greedily consumed, I wanted the gorgeous tunics she wore in India, and I seriously found myself researching a Bali vacation upon returning to my hotel room. In two hours, I had been on a vicarious world tour, and now I wanted the real thing.

Breath, Relax, and PRAY
"I believe in cappuccino. That's my god," said Javier Barden, who plays Gilbert's love interest. And while we're pretty sure there's no such thing as the Church of St. Espresso, the Spanish actor clearly worships his coffee, and we in turn praise him for his honesty. Effortlessly exuding charm and sex appeal playing the intelligent, warm-hearted Felipe, Bardem had us swooning.

And Roberts wasn't immune to his allure either. "We went to Bali, and Javier showed up, and it was like deciding to get a puppy. You know, you have everything in your house worked out, and you think, oh, my life is so settled, I'm going to get a puppy. And then the puppy comes in and you're like, I'm way too tired to have a puppy. He came in with gusto, enthusiasm, and excitement. ... It was so contagious," Roberts said.

Puppy love aside, it's true that both Roberts and Bardem have happy, fulfilled personal lives at home. Married to Daniel Moder, Roberts has two children. And Bardem recently married actress Penélope Cruz. One journalist in the group said to them, "You both seem to have the eat and the love part down—what about the pray part?" After gracefully skirting the peculiar overeating implication, Roberts said, "I think if you've gotten to a place where you have found a capacity to love and nourish your life, that somewhere along the way you've found your own way to pray to an energy or creation that's more than you. ... How you do it and relate to it and what you name it becomes insignificant in regards to the act of it." Well put, Julia.

After the press conference, the writers and our loved ones were shuttled to the Carneros Inn, where we were treated to massages and a private yoga and meditation class. We breathed, stretched, and unabashedly chanted. It certainly wasn't a sweltering ashram in India. It might not have been religious. But it definitely felt spiritual. We napped by the gorgeous pool that featured a picture-perfect panoramic view of mountains and vineyards, sipped fine wine, and soaked up the warm weather, fresh air, and serene surroundings.

EAT Like You're in Italy
Our Napa experience concluded with a fabulous Italian fete at Michael Chiarello's Bottega Restaurant in Yountville. In a gorgeous green courtyard decorated with lanterns and sunflowers, we feasted on brick-oven pizza, eggplant, roasted artichokes with buffalo cheese, heirloom tomatoes filled with caviar, melon with ham, seafood ravioli, cavatelli with bacon and cream sauce, and veal. Wine and champagne flowed as we talked, laughed, and dined family-style.

I was reminded of a scene in the film in which Liz has lunch with a group of her new friends in Italy. She orders their meal and revels in the beauty of the exotic foreign language as it slips off her tongue. Earlier Roberts had told us about the 10 pounds she put on while filming in Italy. "They did go to great, elaborate pains to make amazing food that I had to eat endlessly. ... I loved every pound."

Our evening ended with a trip to the gelato station, where we sampled every fresh flavor and savored the dolce vita. I had a fabulous two days in a stunning place with someone I love. I saw a remarkable movie, met phenomenal actors, rejoiced in the sun, "let myself go" in yoga, drank like it was going out of style, and ate to my heart's content. Life doesn't get much better. Liz Gilbert really was onto something.

*Photos Courtesy of Sony Pictures