The Peruvian Amazon of Leonor Caraballo and Matteo Norzi’s Icaros: A Vision suggests nothing less than another dimension to those who see or visit the jungle from the vantage point of a modernized society. The lush greenness of the trees and plants visually impresses upon one an engulfing aura of un-corralled life, which the filmmakers capture in ravishing long takes. The omniscient, nearly viscous hum of insects suggests a celestially cacophonous blanket of sound that’s spiritually stirring and terrifyingly insistent on humankind’s smallness. And tourists, or “passengers,” as the Shipibo shamans call them in the film, pay to actively feel this very smallness and theoretically detoxify from the pressures and impurities of corporatized life.
Colonialism has left such a stain on the world that the act of a privileged Caucasian visiting an un-modern society will always scan as uncomfortably and latently political. When first-world citizens visit the Amazon to heal their wounded souls, there’s more than a hint of global condescension and exploitation—of a fetishizing of the “mystical savage,” though the shamans of this film are happy to make money running a center for outsiders and are insistent on payment before entrance. Icaros: A Vision isn’t an apolitical film, because there’s no such thing, but rather a sub-textually political film that’s conscious of the weight of what it’s not quite saying.
There’s a brief reference in Icaros: A Vision to the rubber boom, when Europeans mined the Amazons for the substance, setting forth intricate webs of subjugation and cultural codependences. There’s also a cheeky and haunting homage to Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (which concerns a white man devising a famously insane way to get Amazonian rubber), where the film is reflected through a body of water, its actors suggesting blurred aquatic ghosts. Also notably hinted at but unelaborated on is the ambiguous nature of the shamans themselves, and their own troubling legacies of exploitation.
As such, facets of power linger submerged underneath the film, informing its predominant theme with sad and unresolved tension. For Icaros: A Vision is chiefly concerned with sick people attempting to take control over their lives after conventional mainstream medicine has failed them. The film’s protagonist is Angelina (Ana Cecilia Stieglitz), who’s suffering from an unnamed malady that’s almost certainly cancer, which a shaman memorably describes as “the energy of the dead.” Angelina arrives at the Anaconda Cosmica healing center somewhere in the jungle, and consumes the ayahuasca, a plant known for its hallucinatory properties.
The film has a calming and inevitable quality, and a leisurely sense of pacing that favors image and sound over narrative propulsion, that slows our own biorhythms, fostering our sensorial empathy with the passengers. Angelina befriends a young shaman, Arturo (Arturo Izquierdo), who discovers that he’s suffering from a degenerative eye disease, an encroaching malady that Caraballo and Norzi visualize as geometric labyrinthine patterns that recur in Shipibo art and textiles. These patterns, which suggest a bird’s-eye view of the maze and carpeting from the Overlook Hotel of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, come to subtly pervade the imagery of Icaros: A Vision, suggesting physical and cultural sickness that also serve, for Angelina and Arturo, as a bonding agent, or an ironic source of transcendence.
Sickness isn’t a theoretical device for Caraballo, who died from cancer after the film’s completion, and one detects in Icaros: A Vision a yearning for purity. Why can’t a woman’s desire to heal not be marred in the baggage of cultural atrocity? The filmmakers conjure a remarkable cinematic spell in which the primordial imagery of the jungle complements their diaphanously poetic vision sequences. In a startling symbolic flourish, the passengers are seen through the eyes of a shaman, who regards them as TV sets broadcasting the personal trips on which the ayahuasca is about to take them. The passengers may be in the jungle, but they’re forever Westerners in the eyes of the indigenous people. In the most beautiful and heartbreaking image, Angelina’s face vanishes in a waft of ceremonial smoke as she lays in a shelter.
Throughout Icaros: A Vision, Caraballo and Norzi forge a distinctive tonality of lost, aching, and exultant sadness, reveling in the qualified hope that might be necessary to make certain strands of death bearable to those who’re both cursed and blessed to see it coming. Beneath the drugs and theatricality of the shamanic rituals is the struggle to reconcile oneself with impermanency, which, when achieved, might be the highest plane of human grace.