According to the new documentary ''Naked in Ashes," 13 million of the nearly 1 billion people who live in India are holy men: yogis, gurus, sadhus, and babas. The film pulls off the remarkable feat of immersing a viewer in their world without providing any insights whatsoever.
The film is worthwhile viewing for spiritual armchair travelers already acquainted with and/or committed to Hinduism, while those who know yoga only from their weekly Bikram classes will get a bracing slap of reality from the torturous devotions shown here. A Downward Facing Dog is one thing; pulling a fully loaded jeep with your penis is quite another.
Filmmaker Paula Fouce uses the homeless mystic Shiv Raj Giri as her guide to India's holy life, following him from a bathing festival on the banks of the Ganges in Haridwar to the foothills of the Himalayas and back to the 2004 Kumbh Mela, a massive gathering of spiritual seekers that takes place every 12 years (and that was the subject of last year's similarly muddled ''Shortcut to Nirvana: Kumbh Mela").
Giri cuts a striking and compelling figure: Clad only in a loincloth (when he's clad in anything at all) and covered head to toe with gray ashes that render him an otherwordly shaman, he leads his apprentice yogis on grueling inner and outer journeys, insisting on good works and spiritual peace through renunciation. His followers work overtime to mortify themselves, the better to prove their oneness with the universe. One has been standing for five years and intends to keep going for another seven. ''I will get God and then I will get peace in my soul," he tells the camera. ''This is austerity."
This is also religious mania, or perhaps the narrow mindset of the poor, uneducated, and devout. Or maybe these men truly have a direct line to glory. ''Naked in Ashes" isn't interested in parsing the difference. Fouce and her fellow filmmakers take everything on wide-eyed faith, and the film's credulousness renders it useless as a larger document. Even sympathetic objectivity would be a plus for outsiders coming to the movie, but ''Naked" uses as its chief narrator Shiv Raj Giri's 14-year-old acolyte Santosh Giri, which is like asking a flower to describe the sun. The scene where the boy comes of spiritual age and gets his head shaved is unexpectedly moving -- the vision of his locks flowing down the river carries the impact of a centuries-old metaphor -- but what this means to Santosh is largely left unexplored. Are you happy? ask the filmmakers. Yes, he responds. And on we go.
Without that context, questions arise and are never answered: Where are the women? Does their spiritual life not have equal worth in this society? (It's telling that the one woman we see is an aged German convert.) How do seekers reconcile a disavowal of modernity and the use of cellphones? Are any of the hundreds of thousands of Kumbh Mela holy men charlatans? Is Shiv Raj Giri really pulling that jeep, or is the man in the driver's seat giving him a little assistance on the gas pedal?
''Naked in Ashes" could easily provide answers but doesn't, and so it invites only unexamined faith or skepticism. Given where the movie takes us -- to the edge of the mountain and the rim of the soul -- this counts as a profound loss.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.