In recent years, pop culture has made increasingly frequent reference to the ancient Peruvian drug ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic plant extract used in shamanic rituals. Perhaps the smartest and most satisfying to date is Icaros: A Vision, a collaboration between Leonor Caraballo and Matteo Norzi, which moves this week to general release after a year on the festival circuit. Using real life experience as a springboard for poetic fiction, the picture centers on an American woman seeking healing in the Amazon. But the odor of cultural appropriation that sometimes clings to projects like this is absent here, with the filmmakers both respecting the mysteries of local knowledge and paying as much attention to the experience of an apprentice shaman as to that of his white patients. The film should be well received in arthouses.
Caraballo, an artist whose experiences inspired the film, encountered ayahuasca after surviving a battle with breast cancer. While using the drug, she had a premonition of her death; soon, doctors realized she had bone cancer. She chose to make this film during her illness, and died during postproduction.
Her fictional stand-in here is Angelina (Ana Cecilia Stieglitz), who has come to the Amazon to face her own (unspecified but clearly serious) medical condition. Wary as she checks into a retreat catering to foreigners, she goes through an introductory consultation alongside others suffering less dire conditions. An Italian actor (Filippo Timi), for instance, is trying to cure a chronic stutter.
Set in an actual ayahuasca retreat, the film surrounds its fictional patients (known as “passengers” here) with real shamans and support staff. The non-actors play versions of themselves: The head shaman, Guillermo Arevalo, has for decades been one of Peru’s leading proponents of traditional medicine. (At least one of his lodges has generated controversy about its treatment of patients.)
Arevalo has a young apprentice, Arturo Izquierdo, who oversees the nighttime rituals in which ayahuasca is administered. While passengers recline on cots, each experiencing his own vision, Arturo looks at them and sees television sets, each tuned to a different strange channel.
The movie lingers just long enough in these sessions to evoke the experience of the drug (with restrained FX and smart editing — in Angelina’s case, incorporating many fast-cut images of her CT scans) and to explain that drugs are only part of the treatment. We watch as hosts blow the smoke of Mapuche cigarettes on patients to cleanse them; we listen as they chant icaros, spell-like songs meant to facilitate each passenger’s journey.
When the film first focuses on Arturo in the daytime, watching him scratch his eyes, we may think we’re looking at the after-effects of mind-altering substances: Creepily, his field of vision is infected by the distinctive fractal patterns that feature prominently in Shipibo art. But Arturo is actually in the early stages of a degenerative eye disease, something that will bring him closer to Angelina.
The friendship between the two supplies just enough narrative content for Caraballo and Norzi (and co-screenwriter Abou Farman) to get away with what really seems to interest them: coaxing viewers into the unhurried pace of life here, helping them reset their expectations and become open to different modes of perception. Calling itself a “vision” as opposed to a “film,” Icaros attempts to conquer fear — of death, of blindness, of loss — by accepting the potency of a magic it knows it will never understand.
Production company: Conibo Productions
Distributor: Factory 25
Cast: Ana Cecilia Stieglitz, Filippo Timi, Arturo Izquierdo, Guillermo Arevalo, Lurdes Valles, Dominga Vales
Directors: Leonor Caraballo, Matteo Norzi
Screenwriters: Leonor Caraballo, Abou Farman, Matteo Norzi
Producers: Abour Farman, Aziz Isham, Matteo Norzi
Director of photography: Ghasem Ebrahimian
Editor: Elia Gasull Balada
Casting director: Tracy Kilpatrick
In Spanish and English