Warsaw 2016: Icaros: A Vision review


★★★★☆
On the heels of Embrace of the Serpent comes another tale of spiritual purification in the Amazon, but one told in a very different manner. Set in present-day Peru in the same town as Herzog's Fitzcarraldo, Icaros: A Vision begins as American traveller Angelina arrives at a shamanic retreat deep in the jungle. She joins an assortment of people all seeking cures for various ailments, be it drug addiction, a stammer, or in her own case what appears to be cancer. Each night the guests and shamans gather together and ingest the psychoactive plant mixture 'Ayahuasca' while singing mysterious chants known as 'Icaros'.

While Angelina can't quite hack it at first - one of the first things she does is plug in her laptop and text a friend to complain - over time she adapts to the rhythm of the rainforest and sheds the 'susto' (disease of fear) shaman in training Arturo had diagnosed her with. Yet this is far from a conventional tale of corrupted Westerners being healed by ancient wisdom. None of the other guests become obviously cured of their disorders, and even Arturo is unable to escape the fallibility of the human body - he suffers from a degenerative eyesight condition.

This is hammered home by the tragic fact that co-director Leonor Caraballo died of breast cancer before Icaros was completed, after having herself attended an Ayahuasca retreat (along with co-director Matteo Norzi and producer Abou Farman). This first-hand experience is also what gives the film its undeniable authenticity, the sense that a people's beliefs and practices are being presented wholly undiluted. Sidestepping the question of whether or not shamanic methods 'work' in a scientific sense, Caraballo and Norzi directly depict the psychedelic experience of Ayahuasca itself by seamlessly blending dream and reality into a single stunning whole.

Icaros achieves this hallucinatory effect through its top-notch cinematography, special effects and soundscape. The constant accompaniment of rippling water, rustling trees, meditative breathing and ancient incantations is rendered with exceptional clarity, while the crispness of the visuals endow them with a sense of heightened reality. The technical quality of special effects often dictates whether experimental films such as this hit their mark, but in this case they are exceptional. Certain sequences could be considered works of art in themselves, such as Angelina's first Ayahuasca experience in which images of surgery, of her body in an MRI machine, and of strange, X-ray-like amorphous biological entities combine to disconcerting effect.

Perhaps most beautiful of all are the dreamy, Malick-esque tracking shots of Arturo's mother floating along the river in her boat as Angelina comments on the sacred properties of the Amazon's flora and fauna in whispered voiceover. In these scenes and throughout all of Icaros, and in contrast to the ongoing compartmentalisation of modern life, one message rings loud and clear: past and present, man and nature, dreams and wakefulness - all are fundamentally interconnected

Maximilian Von Thun | @M3Yoshioka

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