'Ashes': The Not-So-Naked Truth About Yogis
Friday, January 6, 2006; WE32
The documentary "Naked in Ashes," Paula Fouce's account of India's 13 million yogis, is by turns fascinating, puzzling and troubling -- a deeply felt account of the varieties of religious experience but also a thoroughly uncritical apologia for fanaticism.
Fouce travels with Shiv Raj Giri and his disciples, including a young man who has chosen to stand unceasingly for 12 years as his "austerity" and a boy who seeks initiation as a yogi, as they travel to religious shrines and ritual baths in India's holiest rivers; along the way Fouce, a California native who has traveled extensively in Nepal, profiles all manner of renunciates, mendicants, hermits and ascetics.
Although the filmmaker is clearly as besotted with her subjects -- especially Giri -- as their followers, "Naked in Ashes" becomes increasingly disturbing as we see men -- and they are always men -- putting themselves and one another through more and more punishing physical tests. At one point, Giri pulls a fully loaded Jeep with his genitalia, as both a form of spiritual transcendence and political protest (the yogis insist that their way of life is coming under attack by secular government forces); to the cynical, it looks like rank showmanship. (Still, he offers the film's most memorable quote: "The penis-control exercise is not for everyone." Word up, my brother!) "Naked in Ashes" -- so named because of the yogis' practice of covering themselves in the ashes of the cremated -- isn't helped by its amateurish digital-video aesthetic, its ambiguous point of view (an unnamed narrator keeps referring to Giri as "my guru," but it's never clear just who is supposed to be speaking) or its overheated musical score. As an intimate glimpse into an otherwise hidden world, it's admittedly absorbing, but the subjects merit a more rigorous portrait.
-- Ann Hornaday
Naked in Ashes Unrated, 109 minutes Contains brief nudity. At Landmark's E Street Cinema.
© 2006 The Washington Post Company