Note: This is not a review but rather a commentary on spiritual
themes in the movie from a Christian viewpoint. For a discussion of the
book's spirituality, see CANA article on the book.
There I was, two weeks after this movie opened, with 20 other women (no men) to view the movie based on the bestselling book by Elizabeth Gilbert, spawning themes for the travel, fashion, and food industries (including stores like World Market).
Having read the book, there were few surprises in the movie, though the movie altered a major setback in the book, transforming a difficult thing into a good thing (more on that later).
Actress Julia Roberts plays author Elizabeth Gilbert, who wrote a first-person self-exploration account of her journeys to Italy, India, and Bali following an emotionally devastating divorce. The movie presents this trip as though Gilbert dreamed it up from her patchwork of grief and desire for self-discovery. However, although we do not know who thought the trip up, from Gilbert's original website (no longer accessible), we do know it was arranged and paid for in advance by the publisher.
The movie opens with Gilbert in Bali on a previous trip she had made as a journalist. She meets Ketut, a Balinese "medicine man," who reads her palm. He also tells her that one knows God through the heart, not the head. This foreshadows her later trip there one year later.
Gilbert returns to her home in New York City and realizes she is no longer happy in her marriage and does not want the rather nice upscale life she has with her husband, so she decides to pray. This was a sincere from-the-heart prayer, and it's too bad that it went downhill from there in terms of a relationship with the real God. For in that moment, Gilbert saw her need and, humbled, was seeking wisdom from One greater than herself. However, she does not pursue this, and ends up following cultural wisdom that tells you to divorce if you are not happy, rather than try to work it out (her husband did not want to end the marriage). She wants to get to know herself outside of relationships with men, and decides to follow that goal.
After an affair with a younger man, David, who is a Yoga practitioner, meditator, and devotee of a woman guru in India, Gilbert leaves New York. There is little to say about her sojourn in Italy, where she learns to enjoy its food, beauty, and art as well as some friendships. Gilbert's spiritual journey really begins in India, where she stays in the ashram belonging to David's guru (an ashram is a place where devotees of a guru lodge, meditate, and are taught by the guru and the guru's associates).
In India, Gilbert sums up her spiritual lessons in a statement she makes emphatically at least twice in the movie: "God dwells in me, as me." She also buys an idol of Ganesh, the elephant-headed god often sought for luck, and listens to spiritual advice from Richard, a Westerner who has been at the ashram for awhile in order to heal past wounds and seek enlightenment.
In one scene at a little outdoor snack place, Richard tells Gilbert that she has too much in her head, and that if she could let go of it, the "universe" would "whoosh, go rushing" into her. This indeed is what happens in the book, leading to intense spiritual experiences for Gilbert.
Most of Gilbert's spiritual ashram experiences recorded in the book,
however, are left out in the film. From just watching the movie, one
would not know that the book's section on India is heaving with Eastern
and New Age spirituality, including a climactic moment when Gilbert
feels she "is pulled through the wormhole of the Absolute" and
understands "the workings of the universe" (see CANA article on book).
The viewer is not privy to this, but does witness Gilbert leave India
for Bali in a seemingly more serene state.
In Bali, Gilbert immediately seeks out the medicine man, Ketut, whom she met on her earlier journalist trip. What Ketut foretold from reading her palm in that visit seems to have come true. To help bring her into "balance," he becomes her spiritual mentor. Gilbert eagerly and unquestioningly drinks in his advice, as though he is the wisest man who ever lived.
Once again, the movie leaves out some hardcore spiritual practices. In the book, Ketut introduces Gilbert to her "four spiritual brothers." These are spirit guides, and in the book, Gilbert writes about these brothers, whom she calls on and speaks to as soon as she "meets" them. Having had spirit guides, I can vouch for the danger in such a connection. These "guides," at the very least, influence a person's mind, and in extreme cases, take over the mind. All palm readers, astrologers, psychics, mediums, card readers, shamans, etc. have such guides; it is how they receive much of their information on a person.
Wayan, an indigenous healer whom Gilbert befriends and consults, is in both the book and movie. However, the movie leaves out the extreme anxiety Gilbert goes through after collecting $18,000 from her many friends for Wayan to buy land and build a house. Towards the end of the movie, all that is shown is the house being built with a beautiful blue tile floor, something Wayan's daughter had dreamed of. The book, on the other hand, details the laborious roller coaster Gilbert had to ride through Wayan's delays, hesitations, secrecy, a temporary plan to build a hotel instead of a house (which horrified Gilbert), Wayan taking time to examine the taksu (spirit) of each potential location, and many other delays over several months.
Finally, Gilbert is forced to confront Wayan, telling her that Gilbert's friends who donated the funds are angry, wondering where their money went (this is a lie, which Gilbert feels guilty about, but also feels she has no choice). After this confrontation, Wayan suddenly buys some land. The book implies that the delays were perhaps deliberate, and, reading between the lines, one could infer that a scam might even have been afoot. The movie leaves all of this out, preferring to show viewers the heart-stirring beneficence that Gilbert and her friends shower on the life of an appropriately grateful Bali healer. Needless to say, this is very misleading.
Gilbert meets a Brazilian, Felipe, who also consults Ketut and has his palm read. Although palm reading was once mocked or connected to evil in movies, it is now presented as a source of wisdom, or at the very least, an innocuous practice, especially if the person doing it is as charming as Ketut.
Falling in love with Felipe and realizing she can once again commit to a relationship, the movie ends on a happy note, displaying a radiant Gilbert who has become whole through her travels and spiritual lessons and encounters.
The movie disregards so much of the book's spirituality, that only pieces of it appear here and there in the film. Ignored in the film is Gilbert's blatant rejection of Christianity, verbalized strongly in the book; and the movie glosses over or leaves out the intense spiritual experiences and insights from the book, which Gilbert writes about in detail.
If the book were a boat, the New Age and Eastern spirituality it contains would sink it to the depths of the ocean. For the movie, the spirituality merely ribbons through it superficially. No one can understand what is really in the book merely by viewing the movie; therefore, people should assume little about the book from the film.
There is enough, however, in the movie that warrants a warning. Gilbert seeks out the "god within," while rejecting the true living God. Medicine men are technically sorcerers, and though they may seem kind and amiable, like Ketut, they are in touch with spirits, such as the "four brothers," otherwise known as fallen angels. Palm reading, a form of occult divination, spirit contact, and sorcery are practices condemned and forbidden by God (Deuteronomy 18:10-12; 2 Kings 17:17; 1 Chronicles 10:13; 2 Chronicles 33:6; Micah 5:12; Acts 16:16; Galatians 5:20).
The usual false dichotomy between head and heart is also made. To let go of thought is part of the Eastern worldview, which believes that the mind is a barrier to apprehending spiritual truth. Therefore, meditation, silence, and other techniques are employed in order to transcend the mind and the normal view of self and reality (since this reality is not real, according to Hinduism and Buddhism).
Practicing the kind of meditation Gilbert does will change your worldview, but not because you are going toward truth; rather, it is because you are going into an altered state where your judgment and critical thinking skills are suspended (as in hypnosis). In such a state, experiences occur that validate the beliefs at the source of these practices and give one a counterfeit feeling of transcendence. Indeed, it has been shown that physiological changes during such meditations induce a euphoric feeling that one has merged with a greater presence or "oneness."
Hinduism wants you to see that your true self is "That;" that is, you are divine ("I am That," is one of the Hindu mantras, a phrase repeated during meditation). Buddhism teaches that there is no self at all.
Finally, we cannot overlook that during the course of filming some of this movie in India, Julia Roberts herself "converted" to Hinduism, and thousands of people are now traveling to India and Bali, consulting Ketut or others like him.
Note: The writer of this article was involved in Eastern and New
Age spirituality for about 20 years, including Hindu and Buddhist forms
of meditation for 15 of those years.