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Hugs and jugs

Darshan at the MFA; Fanfan at the Coolidge
By GERALD PEARY  |  August 17, 2006

TOP HEAVY: Gina Lollobrigida in Fanfan la tulipe
It’s not just red-state cities that genuflect to films avowing spirituality. By far the most popular local independent film ever to play at the MFA is Laurel Chiten’s 1998 The Jew in the Lotus, whereby American rabbis journeyed to India to hook up with Tibet’s exiled Dalai Lama. I predict a rush of seekers and true believers for Darshan: The Embrace, which starts this Friday, August 18, at the Coolidge Corner Theatre.

It’s groupie filmmaker Jan Kounen’s adulatory homage to India’s female guru, Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, “Amma” to her legions of followers. Ye of little faith, check out another documentary. This one’s off the charts for piety and religiosity. Cameras bow and shuffle in the shiny path of this big-cheeked, benignly smiling fisherman’s daughter who at 50 is the Hindi Mother Teresa: the film kicks in with her licking a leper.

Over the 90 minutes, Amma traverses India by bus, from the deep South to Calcutta to Benares, addressing her blissed-out flocks, who would crowd Shea Stadium. After 9/11, she asks the gathered to contact friends and relatives by phone and e-mail, pledging all to a one-minute silent “Prayer for World Peace.” She’s against modernity: “As our TV screens get larger,” she preaches, “our hearts get smaller.”

But what Amma is famous for is the Big Hug: “darshan” means “embracing.” As the crowds snake into the endless night, she stands by, her arms stretched out, pulling the happy, crying people toward her chest. Darshan claims that she’s done 45,000 persons in a 21-hour hug-in. Meanwhile, her disciples stand by, wiping make-up and perspiration off those about to come in contact with her. “I was immersed. It was a very religious experience,” says one Brit follower after hours of toil removing sweat from the teeming masses. An American TV reporter is also impressed: “She never charges any money for her hugs!”

Is there a Doubting Thomas out there? This skeptic was quieted by an article in the Christian Science Monitor that suggests Amma’s the real deal. She’s behind foundations that give millions to the poor, to orphanages, to hospitals. She’s even a sister of feminism, supporting indigent Indian widows and, to the dismay of the Hindi power structure, training women priests. So I give in. Darshan is a formless, hagiographic home movie, but I guess I’m a Jew for Amma.

In the 1950s, big breasts were enough in themselves to make a movie star. How else to explain Mamie Van Doren, Diana Dors, Jayne Mansfield, or, the most popular of this untalented, top-heavy bunch, Gina Lollobrigida? Gina stars in Fanfan la tulipe (1951), an 18th-century-set French-Italian swashbuckler that, for reasons beyond me, has been restored and revived and starts this Friday at the Kendall Square. Squeezed into a peasant dress, with her bosom bouncing enticingly above, she plays Gypsy girl Adeline, who falls for an energetic, womanizing swordsman (Gérard Philipe), the Fanfan of the title. He has dreamier ambitions: to marry Henriette, daughter of King Louis XV.

The romantic stuff is dull because Lollobrigida’s a pill on screen, and it doesn’t help that her native Italian gets dubbed into French. The sexier of the leads is definitely Philipe, a huge French matinee idol in the ’50s who, cinema’s loss, died of cancer at age 36. He’s fun to watch, wooing women and leaping about, Douglas Fairbanks fashion, with a drawn sword. Those who make it to the end of this film, which is directed by Christian-Jacque, are rewarded with a couple of entertaining battles and a fairly cute deus ex machina conclusion.

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