“The Last Shaman” may beat “Icaros: A Vision” to U.S. theaters by a week, but in every respect, it suffers from such proximity. Raz Degan’s documentary is, like Leonor Caraballo and Matteo Norzi’s fictional drama, a tale about a Westerner venturing deep into the Amazon jungle in search of salvation, and finding it through work with Shipibo community shamans who use the hallucinogenic ayahuasca plant to cleanse the body and heal the soul. At once superficial and overblown, this documentary also often feels downright phony, which — in light of its superior counterpart’s impending release — should make for a grim theatrical fate.
In Andover, Mass., twentysomething James Freeman wanders the campus of Philips Academy, ruminating in voiceover about how, because of the severe stress and depression wrought by his competitive Western life, “by age 21, 22 — I was dead.” It’s a melodramatic proclamation in keeping with the tone struck by Degan’s film, which opens with a frenzied montage of images — James cutting wood in the jungle, a grave dug in a forest, running water, tribal men exhaling smoke, and a veil covering James’ face — that establish the material’s affected style.
Throughout the ensuing portrait, the director forwards a series of similar visual collages, each one intent on conveying James’ tumultuous state of mind, as well as the mind-bending effects of the ayahuasca plant. After unsuccessful attempts to remedy himself through electro-convulsive therapy (supported by his physician father, from whom he’s estranged), James heads off to Iquitos, Peru. Over the course of his subsequent journey, he spends time with a variety of local shamans who medicate with the natural remedy (along with “icaros,” the chants that accompany its use). But as with a rooster-fighting gringo named Ron, James finds that, in many cases, these wise men and women are guided more by monetary motives than by spiritual ones — a troubling issue, given that his odyssey is, in large part, an attempt to escape such commercially driven ways of thinking.
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As in an early sequence that segues quickly between footage of a screaming shirtless South American man and another individual spitting into a cup (played in reverse), “The Last Shaman” strives for psychedelia through its schizophrenic aesthetics, which also include overlapping natural and artificial noises, narrated soundbites and traditional music. The effect is one of trying too hard to evoke a mood of extrasensory wonder and terror. That Degan then routinely presents James and others in staged-for-the-camera moments — him walking along jungle streets and posing in front of a Ferris wheel, or his mother staring mournfully out a window, wondering if she’ll ever see her son again (even though her contributions seem to have been filmed after he’d returned) — furthers the sense that everything presented here has been carefully pre-plotted and choreographed, rather than caught on film during the course of an unpredictable journey.
Very little actually occurs on that pilgrimage, and Regan’s desire to fast-forward his way through much of James’ solitary ordeal (as he fasts and takes the ayahuasca alone) drains it of the very contemplative essence that seems to be at the heart of the young man’s experience. The fact that James’ favorite shaman, Pepe, winds up ostracized for not conforming to his village’s more business-related plans (via an NGO, they plan to offer ayahuasca services at a price) brings the film back around to its original anti-rat-race argument. Yet like so much of “The Last Shaman,” it’s a development that comes across as far more schematic than spontaneous.