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Preston Estep III,
S. Waite Rawls III
Poorly constructed, but totally worth the price of admission
Ram Dass has been an important spiritual teacher for almost 40 years, bringing Eastern wisdom to the West, most significantly with his seminal book BE HERE NOW. In 2000 (or maybe 1999?) he had a stroke, and this documentary focuses on his recovery from the stroke and his dealing with the consequences of that, and how he has incorporated that into his spirituality.
As a documentary, Fierce Grace is poorly constructed. It leaves huge gaps. We learn how Richard Alpert, Harvard professor, meets Timothy Leary (who had the Harvard office next door) and becomes part of the mind experiments of the 60s, and how that led him to India and the Maharaji. When Ram Dass returns to the States, we see a brief flash of a poster of "Baba Ram Dass" and then interviews with his family talking about the hundreds of people who came to see him and learn from him. There is a fairly large and jarring gap here, as we have no idea how these people knew about him; the movie doesn't describe his teaching, his publishing, his recording, or give any hint except that suddenly he was somehow famous. It assumes viewers know, I guess, except that doesn't make for good storytelling.
This is one example of numerous odd gaps in the narrative. Nothing of Ram Dass's personal life post-India is told until his stroke 40 years later. It's as if he lived in a bubble. There are good ways of skipping a bunch of decades and details but I don't think the filmmaker found them.
I am also bothered by the way that the movie spent more time telling us that Ram Dass had wisdom and teachings than actually showing us. The two best scenes are when we hear his actual teaching. In the movie's best moment (which is TOTALLY worth the price of admission), a couple who have survived a terrible tragedy read the letter that Ram Dass wrote them. In that letter was more wisdom and profundity than many people will hear in a lifetime. Towards the end of the film, we see Ram Dass personally counseling someone who has endured a great tragedy, and again, we are profoundly moved. But in between, there is little of Ram Dass's wisdom. Over and over he says he has learned a great teaching from his stroke, but just as he opens his mouth to describe it, the camera cuts away. If I hadn't seen Ram Dass personally, twice, I would not know that he was a great teacher. The movie describes the intense loss Ram Dass went through, going from a witty, clever, verbally deft teacher to a verbally faltering person struggling with neurological limitations, but there isn't a single clip showing his verbal deftness, and I'm sure such clips must be available. I found it very frustrating to be in the presence of this great man and have his greatness kept off-camera about 80 percent of the time.
Again, the remaining 20 percent makes the film totally worth watching, and it's not like I can direct you to some other documentary about him instead. 7/10
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