Out of Body Experiences in Icaros: A Vision
By Adam Cook
Icaros: A Vision is not your typical film with a satisfying beginning, middle and end — but if you approach it in the right mindset, open to its particular structure and aim, it can be an experience you wont soon forget. It’s inspired by an actual shamanic journey undertaken by the film’s co-director, Leonor Caraballo, who sought healing for breast cancer and sadly passed away before the film was finished. So, you know from the outset this isn’t necessarily a success story nor some positive account of the miracle healing that takes place at an actual Ayahuasca retreat in Peru, which is where the film is set, shot, and features real shamans and indigenous non-actors from the Shipibo community.
The main character is also a woman with breast cancer. We learn little about her. The film instead hones in on the practices at the retreat, and the visions brought forth from Ayahuasca, an Amazonian hallucinogenic plant thought to have special powers, giving whoever takes it the chance to live through one’s fears and overcome them. At first, the shaman’s instructions to the characters seeking healing seem hokey. “Eat some ants,” being one suggestion for an actor trying to cure his stuttering—he ends up getting sick each night. But as the woman gives into the experience, she goes on a journey through her mind that even if doesn’t cure her cancer, frees her soul.
The film itself is shaped in such a way that you go through this progression with her and Icaros slips into a trippy phantasmagoria of out-of-body experiences. If it sounds on paper like psychedelic films from the 60s or 70s, which today appear dated, the distinction here is that this practice is a spiritual and cultural tradition among Shipibo communities, and these plant-induced visions aren’t shown here to be mind-blowing but rather possess a serenity and calmness. You may find yourself relaxing at times and letting your mind wander, often the sounds of the jungle permeate the soundtrack and simply having them wash over you is cleansing and compelling all at once.
The films that Icaros more closely resembles are those of Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whose own jungle visions can possess transcendental qualities, such as in his Palme d’Or winning film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Icaros’ more out there surreal scenes work so well I think because the film manages to stay grounded throughout. There’s never a total separation from reality, from the space where it’s set, and the culture it’s attached to, things are just bent a little beyond what’s possible. It’s what makes this trippy journey feel authentic, personal and gives the movie an ethnographic angle. Bonus for cinephiles: it’s set in the same town where Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo was shot, and one mesmerizing sequence features that film projected on rippling water. A vision, indeed.
Icaros: A Vision is playing at VIFF Vancity Theatre from July 28 – August 3.