The Last Shaman

THE LAST SHAMAN, doc­u­men­tary, not rated, in English and Span­ish with sub­ti­tles, The Screen, 3 chiles

Pasatiempo - - ON THE COVER - — Jen­nifer Levin

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

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