Over the years, there have been several spiritual leaders to have
emerged from India. Back in the 1960s and early 70s, the Maharisi
Mahesh Yogi achieved renown with the Transcendental Meditation
movement. In more recent years, Sri Mata Amritanandamayi Devi or
Amma as she is better known to her followers, is another example.

DARSHAN: THE EMBRACE, a film by Dutch-born drector Jan Koumen,
focuses on Amma and the events leading up to the celebration of her
50th birthday in 2003. There's a fundamental problem with Koumen's
approach, however. If you know nothing of this woman and her
charitable works, you will be confused. I knew nothing about Amma
before sitting down to watch this film. It honestly required two
viewings before I managed to get a full grasp on the material.

Koumen adopts a very impressionistic technique for this
documentary. In many ways, I was reminded of a Claire Denis film.
As with Denis' work, the audience must surrender to the images and
the sounds on screen. Eventually a pattern of sorts emerges, but
it require a lot of effort from the viewer. And since most Americans
are used to having things spelled out pretty fully in all forms of
entertainment (the dumbing down effect, if you will),
requires extra consideration.

Amma is known in India as "the hugging saint" and people
line up for hours just so she can spend a few seconds with them
and embrace them, however briefly. There are half-hearted attempts
to fill in the teacher's background -- an intriguing, brief mention that
members of her family questioned her sanity, especially after she
went off into trances. (They were assured by a holy man that she had
achieved a rare spiritual state which I guess satisfied them.)

I'm not knocking the woman or her achievements: she has
reportedly built schools, orphanages, hospitals, and housing for
many poor people in India. But the question of where the money
comes from is never addressed. Watching Amma make her entrances
at her appearances reminded me of the way the audiences at the
Oprah Winfrey Show go crazy over the host, reaching out to touch
her as if that act would somehow bestow some grace on them. Amma
also travels around India with a large retinue, including busloads of
followers; again, I thought of a road tour by a rock band. Indeed,
the receptions she receives in these areas is akin to a rock star.
The few attempts by the director to interview her, though, result in
her muttering platitudes and then cutting off the interview.

The overall feeling I came away with after viewing
was one of healthy scepticism. Her message of love
and tolerance is certainly one that is much needed in the world.
I'm not one to question others' beliefs either. But this film doesn't
really offer much in the way of explanation or context. It is more
like an authorized biography in which the author's hands are tied
and no criticism can be brooked. Perhaps someone someday will
make a full-fledged portrait of this woman, warts and all.

               Rating:                C
               MPAA Rating:        None
               Running time:       93 mins.

                       Viewed on DVD
Darshan: The Embrace
(Darshan - L'étreinte)
©  2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.