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Ram Dass: Fierce Grace (unrated)
Zeitgeist Films
Official Site
Director: Mickey Lemle
Producer:  Mickey Lemle

Rating: out of 5

Richard Alpert’s life can be separated into six sections: pre-Harvard, Harvard, post-Timothy Leary, India, post-India, and the current post-“stroked.” Befriending Timothy Leary, author of Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out and The Politics of Ecstasy, was the first of many life-altering encounters in Richard’s life.  A few years later in India, Richard was introduced to Maharaj ji who would become his spiritual leader and bestow upon him the name “Ram Dass,” meaning “servant of God.”.Ram Dass then went on to write the best-selling book Be Here Now. Rather than solely concentrating on these early segments in Ram Dass: Fierce Grace however, director Mickey Lemle focuses more intensely on the post-India years and how Ram Dass’s spirituality has been greatly affected by his stroke, as unforeseen debilitations and therapy sessions became daily contestats and reaffirmations of his faith.

This documentary—full of aha moments—transcends the tee-tottering emotions of tragedy and joy, and reaches a balance both cinematically and thematically. We see a young activist, soon after the funeral of her assassinated boyfriend, who epitomizes the confusion involved when faith collides with injustices in life. She attempts to deal with his physical removal, all the while reaching for the belief that he is still with her in spirit. Ram Dass is overcome with emotion at one point during their discussion, and together, they ponder the meaning of “waking up” in relation to spirituality and the necessity of taxing experiences in life.

The direction of the movie lapses between the present and past, adding context to the now, and greater meaning to the current changes in Ram Dass’s life. Remarkably, the contextual past feels alive in this film. We know the ’60s were a long time ago, but in this documentary they’re just one scene away. Sixteen mm video clips of Ram Dass’s childhood stays at the family’s estate (dubbed “The Farm”) and documented events at Harvard and in India ignite the past, making memories more than just forgettable smoke. Followers and converts sought insight from him upon his return from India, and the peace, love, and a dove grove contrasts with Ram Dass’s present reality of aging and inevitable loss.

Still eloquent despite stroke-induced speech problems, Ram Dass pointedly articulates reflections concerning his spirituality that have demanded a fierce ability to accept change. Time and time again, he creates axioms of truth out of insightful deductions made from a life fully lived and not yet over. It’s all reminiscent of a clip from the past when he says simply, “You can’t buy in to someone else’s trip.”

Ram Dass: Fierce Grace is a well constructed documentary that functions broadly as a commentary of changing times. On a smaller scale, however, it is a simple portrait of one man; a man who is portrayed by the turns in his past, the light of his present, and the uncertainty of his future.

Are we all capable of fierce grace? Now that’s the stuff of intrigue.

—Sandra M. Ogle


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