Review: Ram Dass, Fierce Grace (2001)

Ram Dass, Fierce Grace (2001)

Directed by: Mickey Lemle | 93 minutes | documentary | Starring: Ram Dass, William Alpert, Larry Brilliant, Bhagavan Das, Timothy Leary, Mark Matousek, Abby Reyes, Hugh Romney, Rosemary Woodruff Leary

Aging is a frightening thought for many people. Your body is starting to deteriorate and chances are your mind is slowly wandering too. Old age is seen as an ailment, a disease. While it is the most normal thing in the world. Popular media tell us that we should try to stay young and fresh, but we rarely get a clear picture of how we should or can deal with the inevitable old age. The documentary ‘Ram Dass, Fierce Grace’ does offer such an image, by following spiritual teacher Ram Dass after a stroke that partially paralyzed him.

‘Fierce Grace’ opens with images of a vital Richard Alpert, the man who uses the name Ram Dass as a spiritual teacher. A sun-tanned forties who exudes nothing but strength. All the more striking is the image of an aging Alpert that immediately follows. A gray-haired man who, with the greatest possible effort, manages to get his legs out of the car to be helped up for his short trip to the wheelchair. He can hardly move his right arm and right leg independently. The age shines through, so to speak. And yet a piece of vitality still glows. Only the body can no longer express it.

The documentary has a good, clear structure. First the man Richard Alpert is introduced as he is ‘now’ (around the year 2000), then the deepening of the ‘concept’ Ram Dass is discussed and only then follows a piece of biography. In between, Alpert’s family and friends have their say and a single scene is set aside for a couple who lost a child and who had a lot of support from a letter from Ram Dass. The emphasis is not always on the old Ram Dass, but that is inevitable, because the documentary makers have chosen to show a lot of biographical background material. For example, Alpert’s friendship with Timothy Leary, a colleague from his time as a professor at Harvard, is extensively discussed. Leary is the person who introduced Alpert to the world of psychedelics. At a time when it was completely out of the question for a respected Harvard employee to have anything to do with drugs, Alpert and Leary conducted groundbreaking scientific research into, for example, spiritual experience under the influence of LSD. Research for which they have been suspended from the university.

In addition, of course, Alpert’s great teacher, Maharaj Ji (also known as Neem Karoli Baba), will be discussed. He is the one who transformed the rational scientist Alpert into the spiritual master Ram Dass (Servant of God), and also gave him that name. It is beautiful to see with how much love and reverence Alpert still talks about his now deceased master. And the stories of his brother and his father about the homecoming of Alpert, who had changed greatly in India, also offer a good picture of the impact Maharaj Ji had on his life.

But the main part of the documentary remains how the old Alpert copes with his physical injuries. He himself expresses this very aptly when he says that he is “surrounded by people who see him as a ‘victim’ of the stroke”, while he absolutely does not want to see himself as a victim. Of course, the stroke has put a big dent in all his plans for the future and the acquired speech impediment (he often has difficulty coming up with words and therefore uses many pauses in his speech) can frustrate him at times. But at the same time he shows that even with these limitations the spirit is still alive and that it can still inspire people beyond measure.

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