The Last Shaman
THE LAST SHAMAN, documentary, not rated, in English and Spanish with subtitles, The Screen, 3 chiles
James Freeman is clinically depressed. Medication and even shock treatments have not lifted the dark wave that swept over him in college, muting his ability to feel. He knows that he has had every advantage: He grew up outside of Boston as the son of two doctors, and had access to the finest schools and the best treatment for mental illness. But his old life — in which he had a devoted girlfriend, career goals, and a sunnier disposition — is beyond reach. He is a real-world Holden Caulfield, but much angrier and more self-aware, convinced that the people around him are savage animals, always in competition with one another and devoid of moral purpose.
In the documentary The Last Shaman, directed by Raz Degan, James heads to the Peruvian Amazon to try to cure his depression with ayahuasca, a mixture of two native plants that proponents consider to be medicine capable of treating anything from the common cold to cancer to heroin addiction.
Though it is flawed, The Last Shaman has a big, naive heart at its center. It is as much about James’ journey from a downright unlikeable antihero to someone capable of smiling again as it is about his ethical issues around the ayahuasca tourism industry — in which unsafe practices, motivated by profit, can have devastating results for people seeking help. James witnesses a tragedy in one of the ayahuasca healing centers he visits, and its proprietor, Guillermo, looms large for him emotionally for the rest of his time in the Amazon. (Fans of the emerging ayahuasca film genre will recognize Guillermo, known professionally as Guillermo Arévalo, from the 2010 documentary Ayahuasca: Vine of the Soul and the 2016 narrative feature Icaros: A Vision, among other roles.)
After several false starts with different shamans, including an ex-con gringo who also runs a cock-fighting ring, James meets Pepe, who seems to have a calling to healing rather than a bottom-dollar mentality. James embarks on extended purification rituals, diving deep into the reasons for his disaffection, purging his body of old energy with a fervor that is both inspiring and intimidating. The threads of the narrative get tangled as the movie goes on, when Degan focuses more heavily on Pepe’s story, which is interesting yet opaque. The ending tries too hard for resolution where there is none. But via James, Degan raises important questions from several perspectives about the long-term benefits and negative ramifications of the ayahuasca cure and trade.
The anatomy of melancholy: James Freeman