By Cat McCarrey, Staff Writer
“Awake: The Life of Yogananda” celebrates just that: the life of Paramahansa Yogananda, a guru and “mystic” who introduced yoga and meditation to America in the early 20th century. Documentarians Paola di Florio and Lisa Leeman track his life and his influence, using Yogananda’s celebrated book “Autobiography of a Yogi” as a thin narrative thread.
Throughout the film, the presence of Yogananda is consistently felt, if not through the heavy voiceover intonation of book sections, then through the near omnipresent images of the man himself. A rotund man, his face looms onscreen at least once every minute, either through vintage footage of him slowly walking around his monastic centers or through still, sepia portraits of his broad face smiling beatifically while glinting eyes stare at the camera.
But for all the reverence the filmmakers have for the yogi, they have absolutely no faith in the power of his words.
“Awake” contains an inspiring message about the strength and scope of yoga and the importance of consciousness, but buries it under a presentation that would make even the most attention adverse say “wait a second, slow down, what’s going on here?”
Part of the frenetic pace stems from the desire to connect Yogananda’s teachings with absolutely everything. He traveled to America in 1920 to spread the gospel of meditation, and is shown as a prophet who tapped into a unique moment in time.
Alongside presentations of Yogananda’s missives run parallels to the science and social change of the early century, giving weight to his descriptions of how religion works with the body and mind. Recent discoveries about the building blocks of the body in molecules and atoms would support the yogi’s lessons about the building blocks of consciousness. His explanations of changing neural pathway habits would find root in cognitive behavioral theory years later.
The film is at its best when it pauses for the connections to click into place. Surprisingly, those moments aren’t allowed to breathe, but instead race forward. Forget the calm of yoga. “Awake” runs through the film like a drunken sprinter, zigzagging from one thought to the next.
The awkward combination of stock footage, historical photos and disgustingly blue-tinted recreations — complete with the fuzzy filters of any true-crime scene on TV — contribute to the off-kilter nature of the film. It’s heavily loaded with clips of historical footage meant to give the viewer a sense of time and place, but which instead beg the question of why a Ku Klux Klan rally from the ‘60s is spliced in for 20 unexplained seconds while an omnipotent interview explains the racism Yogananda faced in America. Any cheap visual hook that can be used is used: clips of Martin Luther King Jr. to describe the yogi’s social impact (despite the fact that the two never met), clips of flappers and racing Model Ts to establish America in the ‘20s, and dreamy ocean waves and light to convey cosmic unity.
“Awake” also decides to throw in talking heads from all walks of life, none with a steady or lasting presence. There are scientists, religious scholars, modern-day monks and spirituals, and the necessary celebrity appearance (thank goodness George Harrison is dead so they could just grab old interviews and not worry about finding a consenting spokesperson).
Splintered among the credited interviews are random person-on-the-street interview snippets, unlabeled and peppered with abandon. There are a few sound bites at the beginning of people describing what yoga means to them. An hour passes. Suddenly more appear, average Joes waxing poetic about the balance in their life — poetic, but not credit-worthy and confusingly shoehorned into the film.
The best moments come when sections of “The Autobiography of a Yogi” are read aloud. When Yogananda’s actual thoughts are given the space to be heard, there’s undeniably something attractive about them, something powerful in the way he reconciles religious experience and scientific existence. Unfortunately, these moments accompany the worst historical reconstructions and tone-deaf presentations of photos, cheesy vignettes that severely undercut Yogananda’s teachings.
Yogananda is a proponent of self-realization and peace. These themes could be oddly prescient in regard to today’s fast-paced society of mental exhaustion. Instead, any truth is wasted in the mess of time-jumping around Yogananda’s life and theme-hopping between his life, his legacy and his work.
“Awake” is ambitious in its attempts to tie these things together, offering a universality that echoes theories of yoga itself, but ultimately lacks the tight focus to pull it off.
“Awake” was given a limited U.S. release Oct. 10 and opened Nov. 7 at Apple Cinemas Fresh Pond in Cambridge. Check out the movie’s website for tickets and show times.