In the film Eat Pray Love, which opens Friday, Julia Roberts gives herself permission to "just say yes."
Waking up to a life obsessing over calories, wheat allergies and her specialty — nonstop guilt about food and every other living thing — Roberts plays author Elizabeth Gilbert, who embarks upon an odyssey of self-discovery, embracing epicurean pleasure as the first step toward shaking up her soul.
Gilbert's first stop, Rome, where people love their food and don't care who knows it. That's the eating part of the movie. She finds spirituality in India and love in Indonesia.
Her maiden meal is simple spaghetti pomodoro, which she haltingly orders in broken Italian, a mischievous smile on her face. As she twirls the red strands around her fork, relishing every bite, her mood is accentuated by Mozart's Magic Flute. This powerful image at a table for one, on the patio of Osteria dell'Antiquario, is this newly single woman's Declaration of Independence.
"This scene is about the joy Elizabeth feels that she can eat a plate of pasta without wagging her finger and worrying if she's going to fit into her jeans," says screenwriter Jennifer Salt, who adapted Gilbert's bestselling book of the same name with director Ryan Murphy. "On a rudimentary level, it's about self-love," she adds. For the first time in a long time, Gilbert has allowed herself to feel pure pleasure — opening her mind to a new letting go.
Of course, gustatory pleasure is seductive and life began imitating art when the cast and crew traveled to Naples' L'Antica Pizzeria Da Michele to eat what's billed as the best pizza in the world. Roberts, known for her slender figure and healthful eating habits, willingly ate a whole slice of pizza — eight times — instead of the designated bite. This from a woman who was happiest when food stylist Susan Spungen was giving her asparagus or melon to munch on during the eight takes required to nail one shot.
Roberts stays in character as she convinces her new best friend Sofi (Tuva Novotny) that life is about indulging pleasure, in this case, her craving for the melting pizza pie in front of her. And so, after ruminating over their inevitable muffin tops — the excess pounds that rise to the top and ooze over the waist of your jeans — and after ravishing her last piece in just one bite, Gilbert orders a second margherita pizza for each of them, with double mozzarella. For dessert, they float out of the restaurant and down the street, in search of Italian pastries.
As for the jeans, Gilbert sloughs it off. "I'm going to eat and then buy some big lady pants."
Later in the film, in a busy cafe in the Largo Febo, we watch Roberts' character exuding in Italian a perfectly pronounced litany of Roman dishes. Without a menu, but with total confidence, she orders a mouth-watering dinner for eight. "For the table, carciofi alla giudia, orecchiette con guanciale, linguine con vongole, pappardelle con il ragu di coniglio, trippa alla Romana and bucatini all'Amatriciana . . . and two more liters of the vino sfuso from Genzano. . . ." Her English seeps back in. She doesn't even notice. She's too busy raising her glass and shouting, "Ciao!"
Of course, while Roberts/Gilbert is busy impressing us with her practiced Roman dialect, Spungen, the food stylist, has been choreographing this multitudinous meal for 13 days. When asked how many showed up to help, Spungen laughs and says, "I think it took a village . . ."
While the actors were waiting for their order at the crowded Santa Lucia restaurant, Spungen and her crew, which included an Italian cook with whom she consulted to make all dishes culturally correct, were at a restaurant down the street, assembling and putting the final touches on each plate of food.
Since there were six to eight different dishes in the scene and it was a hot August day, each recipe had to be prepared a dozen times as the director called for take after take and the once vibrant Roma tomatoes, artichokes and Pecorino Romano wilted, changed color and expired under the cameras' hot lights.
Normally, the experienced food stylist, who created the French delicacies for Julie & Julia, works with a large refrigerated food truck parked near the location, where everything is calmly cooked, stored and taken out in sequence. But narrow Roman roads were Spungen's nemesis and during this shoot she sliced and diced in many kitchens, most of which where on the other side of town.
So instead of delivering dishes from a kitchen a few steps away, after Gilbert places her order, completed plates of food had to be whisked down the street by Spungen's "villagers," who were swarmed by fascinated tourists, paparazzi and curious locals.
Since every plate had to be identical in every take, and every actor had ordered something different — something he'd be willing to eat nine times — continuity could have assumed nightmarish proportions. Not only did Spungen have to provide perfect plates for the primary cast, including the melon Roberts settled upon, but there were extras to think about. Spungen persevered, even making sure that an unnamed lady with a red skirt and a little dog sitting behind Julia had a full plate for every take.
But out of the chaos came pleasure. Maybe what everyone gleaned from making this movie was how to "just say yes" to life and all its possibilities.
Beverly Levitt is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.