Anthropologist-turned-filmmaker Luiz Bolognesi elegantly straddles the line between documentary and fiction in “Ex-Shaman,” a beautifully composed look at a member of Brazil’s Pater Surui tribe whose training as a shaman has ostensibly made him redundant. Formerly the privileged go-between connecting his fellow tribesmen with the spiritual world, the ex-shaman Perpera Surui is himself in a sort of limbo, distanced from the spirits as well as his now evangelized people. Dexterously evoking the porous nature of worlds seen and unseen, Bolognesi shapes real situations in a fictional manner, building a narrative that feels artless yet constructed. Given current interest in indigenous stories, it’s likely this melancholy semi-documentary will hit specialized screens following festival play.
Bolognesi’s years studying ethnology have revealed themselves before, both in his award-winning animated feature debut, “Rio 2096: A Story of Love and Fury,” as well as films he’s scripted, such as Marco Bechis’ “Birdwatchers.” His sensitivity to cultures and their relationship to their environment is especially pronounced with “Ex-Shaman,” which treats the rupture of a people and their traditions with profound respect; the sadness that blankets the entire film isn’t the knee-jerk distress of an activist but the reflective sorrow of someone with an informed view of an irreversible break with tradition.
The Pater Surui of western Brazil were an uncontacted people until 1969, when the outside world arrived bringing disease, Christianity and the so-called civilizing benefits of Euro-American culture. Perpera was 20 at the time, respected as a young shaman whose mediating powers with the spirits made him an essential figure in the tribe’s hierarchy. Then came rubber extractors, government agents and evangelists who taught the Paiter Surui that the traditional spirits were really devils, and Perpera was ostracized. Only when he went to their church was he again tolerated, and now he’s the church caretaker, incongruously dressed in an ill-fitting white shirt and tie as he sweeps the porch. At home, he sleeps with a light on, hoping the illumination will keep spirits that are angry at his abandonment of them from attacking him.
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In reality, it’s the tribe who’ve deserted the spirits, not Perpera. Terrific sound design and editing reinforce the former shaman’s connection with the natural world, such as a marvelous moment when he’s standing in the church doorway and the thrumming buzz of jungle insects gradually replaces the sounds of the service inside. He still knows how to listen, and while he looks on as people consult a nurse who’s arrived with a mobile dispensary, the distance between his former position as healer and his current lowly status as representative of the “primitive” becomes ever more apparent.
Staging comes in presumably when Kabena Cinta Larga, mother of young community leader Ubiratan Surui, is bitten by a Jaracara pit viper and taken to hospital in a coma. Western medicine isn’t helping, so the family turns to Perpera, hoping he can help them appease the spirits. It’s unclear whether Kabena was really bitten or if Bolognesi simply used the incident to create a narrative, but whatever the “reality,” it achieves the goal of proving the lingering connection the Paiter Surui have with their traditional culture, even if it’s something they prefer to hide from the outside world. They may be, as per NPR, the most tech-savvy tribe in the Amazon, with the youth playing at being virtual hunters via video games whereas their grandparents used bows and arrows, yet the ties to what Perpera still represents haven’t completely vanished even if their disintegration is irreversible.
Ricardo Farias’ impressive editing helps break down the distinctions between fiction and nonfiction, perhaps mimicking the tribes’ own perception of such things, though this is speculation. What’s not conjectural is the photographic beauty of the widescreen images, shot by Pedro J. Márquez with a timeless stillness that seems to resist the race toward change that began in 1969 and has caused so much destruction ever since.