“Icaros: A Vision” presents the Amazon jungle as a literal and psychological heart of darkness, a simultaneously restorative and dangerous place where the boundary between the mortal world and the hereafter is gossamer-thin. Based in part on the experiences of co-director Leonor Caraballo, who succumbed to breast cancer before production was completed, this trippy work maps the intersections of West and East, body and spirit, faith and terror with beguiling grace. Too uniquely out-there to attract strong theatrical support, it should nonetheless find receptive ears and ears on the festival circuit.
Caraballo and co-helmer Matteo Norzi provide little context at the outset of “Icaros,” which opens with American Angelina (Ana Cecilia Stieglitz) traveling to a healing center buried deep in the Peruvian Amazon. Comprised of thatched-roof huts, this remote complex is run by gray-haired Guillermo (Guillermo Arevalo) and his grandson Arturo (Arturo Izquierdo), both of them shamans who treat patients — referred to as “passengers” — with both the psychedelic ayahuasca plant and accompanying medicinal chants known as “icaros” which are learned from listening to plants while spending time alone in the jungle.
While actor Leonardo (Filippo Timi) is there to help eliminate a verbal stutter (his prescription: eating ants), and another gentleman covets a reprieve from drug addiction, Angelina has trekked to this isolated corner of South America to cure some sort of fatal cancer. “Icaros” conveys that crucial plot point only during Angelina’s mind-altering use of her ayahuasca remedy, during which time images of her skin being cut by a scalpel, and of her body entering and exiting an MRI machine, are spied amidst collages of undulating cellular x-ray visuals. Such obliqueness is emblematic of Caraballo and Norzi’s plot, which seems to exist in a state between waking and dreaming, frequently cutting away to panoramas of an older woman gliding along the river while Angelina delivers narration about the many plants, elements and sounds of the Amazon.
Angelina’s ruminations on the territory’s salutary and corrosive vegetation are complemented by shots of bustling insects scampering along trees and the ground that further speak to the film’s portrait of the jungle — and the Earth — as fundamentally “alive.” Arturo tells Angelina that she’s beset by “susto” (aka “the disease of fear”), and as it turns out, so is he, courtesy of a rare eye condition that will soon leave him blind.
Their twin journeys toward physical (and spiritual) restoration are dramatized with almost trancelike beauty, as Ghasem Ebrahimian’s cinematography captures both hope and horror in its nocturnal views of men blowing smoke on Angelina as she lies in a canopied bed in the heart of the jungle, and of the center’s passengers sitting on mattresses in a giant hut while Guillermo intones his mystical icaros into the dark night.
Caraballo and Norzi’s film is set in the same region (and, briefly, at the same hotel) as Werner Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo,” though unlike that 1982 classic about mad mortals seeking dominion over nature, their story is ultimately fixated on the more harmonious bonds forged between the wilderness and man.
The fact that “Icaros” was produced in a genuine ayahuasca retreat, and is populated by indigenous Shipibo natives (including leads Izquierdo and Arevalo), contributes to the material’s sense of disparate forces engaging in constructive dialogue. That’s also felt in sights of cell phones being charged in the middle of nowhere, and in the directors’ use of animation and CGI graphics for sequences (a trip through a sand maze; a phone conversation staged with both speakers facing each other against a white background) that smoothly blend the real and the unreal.
Bolstered by a naturalistic soundscape of chirping birds, blowing wind, running water, deep breathing and age-old chants, “Icaros” affords an enveloping, ethnographic look at an ancient culture, and land, whose relationship with modern society is alternately constructive (as when Arturo visits an eye doctor) and potentially destructive (expressed by the old woman boating past a barge transporting chopped-down trees, and a TV broadcast of oceanic animal slaughter). It strikes a mood that’s at once sad and cautiously hopeful, and never less than transfixing.