Amma, the Hugging Saint
How does one make a film about a saint? That is the question that director Jan Kounen sets out to answer, at least implicitly, in the film "Darshan, The Embrace." The holy person in this case is Ammachi, a.k.a. Amma, a.k.a. Sri Mata Amritanandamayi Devi (Sanskrit for "Mother of Immortal Bliss"), a woman embraced by many as a guru, an enlightened being who has attained God-consciousness.

Based at her main ashram in Kerala, India, Amma is renowned for spreading her compassion, acceptance, love, and spiritual energy through a unique, yet very human, form: hugs. When she tours throughout the world, legions of followers, devotees, and the merely curious arrive and line up waiting to be hugged by Amma in a ritual known as darshan (the term refers generally to having an audience with a guru). One after another, for hours upon hours at a time, Amma embraces thousands of people; she is said to have hugged over 26 million to date.

To answer the artistic koan of this film project--how does one capture in finite form one who has touched the Infinite--Kounen relies on the well-worn strategies of the documentary genre. The resulting film is illuminating and moving, allowing Amma and her message a cinematic forum, but it also raises a fundamental concern: Is the medium suited for such a subject--and is Kounen? As the basic material for his portrait of the "hugging saint," Kounen documents the various manifestations of Amma's wisdom, spiritual power, humanitarianism, and love. He shows her at various rituals and bhajans (chants); he interviews her and records her talking informally to followers; weaves in historical footage that explores her earlier years and showcases evidence of her acceptance by mainstream institutions; and, of course, he films several darshan ceremonies.

He turns first to devotees to articulate Amma's power: "She is the irrefutable proof that love truly exists," says one follower, a French woman. "Pure, unselfish, total, infinite love." Kounen introduces Amma in-the-flesh by showing her presiding, resplendent in white, over a roomful of devotees. Proceeding to a more down-to-earth interaction, we next see her chiding a helper for improperly feeding an elephant: "Give her green leaves, not sweet things," she declares.

In a subsequent scene, she is more serious as she discusses the implications of terrorism in the context of September 11 and the 2004 hostage-taking at a school in Russia. "The future looks bleak," she says. "It's very dangerous, so we must all pray. We may not achieve peace, but we shall pray for it."

Throughout the film, Amma is alternately solemn, mischievous, mystical, wise. Her charitable accomplishments are fitting expressions of her spiritual devotion. A recipient of the esteemed Gandhi-King Award for Nonviolence, she has established an extensive network of humanitarian organizations throughout India, including housing- and food-for-the-poor programs, orphanages, and a high-tech hospital providing medical care for the needy.

In interviews with Kounen and in her spiritual discourses, Amma has the gravitas of a true spiritual master. "The creator is creation," she observes. "It's divine power that we see in different forms." Reflecting on the relationship between the guru and the disciple, she seeks to counter the damage done by spiritual con artists posing as illuminated beings: "Say you go to a library and pick out two books. If they are both bad, it doesn't mean all the books there are bad."

A portrait of Amma would be incomplete without scenes of her hugging, and Kounen doesn't disappoint. (Though the director does show an admirable restraint on this count, holding off for more than 30 minutes before showing the first darshan.) "Mother" enfolds her supplicants, squeezing them fiercely to her breast, delight and consternation visible on her face as she murmurs "my child, my child, my child" in her native Malayalam; yet she also multitasks, discussing various issues with those surrounding her even as she holds one seeker close. But such ostensible distractions don't diminish the softness and sincerity apparent in her hugs. Some of her "children" glow or even cry in her presence, and some look pummeled after the embrace. Others seem unfazed by it.

To make up for the inadequacy of documentary footage in conveying the ineffable, Kounen relies in part on the construction of the film itself. Slow-motion sequences suggest a sense of timelessness. The editing and sound design are employed impressionistically, with chimes rung to signal illumination, and, in one interview, Amma's voiceover monologue paired with shots of her looking at the camera, her lips unmoving. As the film proceeds to the final hugging sequence, the music swells, a parallel to the intensity of a particular darshan where, we are told, Amma hugged some 45,000 people over the course of 21 hours.

The elegant cinematography is similarly effective in giving "Darshan" a measure of visual poetry. In certain sequences, the gracefully floating camera has the quality of a disembodied consciousness moving through physical space.

Even as these stylistic techniques help to express the texture of Amma's spiritual world, the editing at times prevents a more immersive journey into it. Instead of lingering in a moment when a priest guides followers into a meditation session--to appreciate the flowering of focused awareness in the midst of stillness--the film cuts between shots and then segues to a different scene. A similar failing applies to the excerpts of Amma's darshan sessions; even when the footage lasts for several minutes, the editing doesn't provide a deeper sense of the overwhelming enormity of how many people she hugs. The makeup-stained shoulder of Amma's sari--a physical trace of those she hugged--is the most profound record of her activity, yet this detail is not transformed into a more evocative, or lyrical, symbol.

Of the symbols Kounen does use, water is a major motif, representing life, death, spiritual transformation, and renewal. The Ganges River, that revered site of pilgrimage and worship, figures in a central passage when Amma speaks of understanding death as a "blissful experience."

Kounen's water imagery and other visual tropes--the camera moving through a hallway toward a distant doorway illuminated by sunshine; playground and amusement park carousels that represent the samsaric "wheel of life"; a burning funeral pyre--are to some degree clichéd, and while the director's cinematic vocabulary is by no means hackneyed, it doesn't exactly slip into the sublime. The resulting film feels like a kind of spiritual tourism; the sights and several exquisite montages are beautiful, but Kounen doesn't conjure a journey into the mystic.

In the end, a film can only do so much. "Darshan" tries to capture the import of Amma's being and teachings, but to truly experience a hug, one must be hugged. Perhaps Kounen himself had some sense of this limitation of his medium. His film begins with the Bhagavad Gita passage, "Some look upon it as a wonder/Some describe it as so/Others hear of it so/But no one truly knows."

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