Movie Review: ‘The Last Shaman’

Review by Richard Steele

Since 1900, life expectancy worldwide has doubled. This is no accident. A modern understanding of biology is hugely responsible for the comparatively healthy lives that we now enjoy. But if medicine is entering its prime in terms of treatment for the body, it is not far from infancy in terms of treatment for the mind, despite advances in our understanding of the brain. While we know longer harbor the delusion that mental disorders are caused by demonic spirits (at least most of us don’t), the classifications, diagnosis and treatments for mental disorders are more varied less accurate than those of other diseases. Imagine the frustration that parents must feel, knowing that achievements in modern medicine have given physicians the ability to replace a valve inside the human heart, but not the ability to explain, let alone cure, their son’s depression.

Raz Degan’s film The Last Shaman examines the journey of James Freeman, “An all American boy whose promising life is brought to a halt by acute depression.” James has been battling depression for the last few years, and depression is winning. Apparently western medicine has failed to help in any way, shape, or form, and James is considering suicide. He decides to change his approach and head into the Peruvian jungle to learn from Shamans. Perhaps traditional medicine will succeed where modern techniques have not.
The film opens with one of those quotes that seem profound, but could also fit nicely in a hallmark card. This one comes from philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti (and I could swear I’ve seen the same words on the paper tags on my herbal teabags). We then run smack dab into a thoroughly uncomfortable close up. In a film where a majority of the scenes take place in the eclectic vibrancy of the jungle, filmgoers might expect to see beautiful shots of trees, streams, and perhaps some wildlife, and although these shots are present, they are somehow muted, and they don’t leave an impact because so much of the film is unpleasant to look at. Depression is tough enough without the cinematography hammering the point home.

One thing the film really does nail is how depression can feel. Often James looks off into space and speaks in a dull monotone about how colorless and empty his life has become, and there’s a scene in a boat in which his frustration over his condition boils over that would have been terrific if not for the choppy editing. The best scene in the film comes when his ex girlfriend discusses how his illness affected her, showing the far reaching destructive force of mental illness. Unfortunately, the film comes to a point of diminishing returns. Viewers who are familiar with depression will certainly appreciate James’ descriptions, but there’s a few too many of these moments.

We also never get to know who James is. For the first two thirds of the movie, depression is his main character trait. We get a few sentences about who he used to be, but we never see who he was before he became ill. We don’t know his personality, so it becomes difficult to empathize; we don’t know who we’ve lost. In the film, he does not suffer from depression, he is a victim of depression, and the distinction is particularly important when dealing with mental illness.

The film gets going as James travels throughout the Jungle. He meets up with several different Shamans and observes ancient jungle rituals involving the entheogenic drink Ayuhuasca, a brew mixed from different plants indigenous to the amazon basin. The scenes involving Ayuhuasca shift in style from miracle cure TV ad to 70s bad acid trip. There are studies that show the possible therapeutic effects of Ayuhuasca, but the film is more concerned with flashy, psychedelic horror montages that come out of nowhere than discussing scientific studies.

James tries working with a few different Shamans (one so ludicrous that he must be seen to be believed), with only a modicum of success before he finds Pepe, a healer residing in a small village. Pepe has rejected the business side of Ayuhuasca and heals because it is his calling, so this is the man for James. He goes on a four month diet which not only severely alters his nutrient intake, but also puts him in solitary confinement with only a camera to talk to. These video logs are the most entertaining part of the film, as he is high as a kite for much of the time; he’s ingesting highly potent hallucinogens alone (a horrible idea just to consider for many). He describes his experiences in a rather incoherent manner, has a great spiritual vision, and goes through a particularly horrifying rebirth ritual.

Once the diet, or dieta is complete, James seems to get a handle on his condition. He smiles a bit more, and shares a lighthearted yet touching moment with Pepe; the two men sing to each other in their own different but familiar ways. Unfortunately, this newfound peace is short lived, as Pepe must leave his village because of… reasons that are not well explained. Suffice to say, Pepe has been screwed over by “the NGO,” and he exits in sorrow, forced to work in an urban environment to make a living. Still, James is feeling much better, and the rest of the film plays like the part of a Cymbalta ad where the pretty shots of sunsets and smiles distract the viewer from the polite voice listing five dozen side effects. He pets a dog and plays soccer with some local kids. He hasn’t been cured, but he’s find a way to take it one day at a time. He’s no longer suicidal.

James does acknowledge that he is still sick, and this is to the film’s credit. Depression cannot be cured by a vision quest, and the movie stops just shy of this claim. But the fact that this adventure worked out for James is no indication that it might work for someone else, and the film does not take even the slightest interest in presenting an alternative point of view; we never see western medicine not work in any detail (The spooky shots of electroconvulsive therapy do not count). Furthermore, it is just as feasible that the change of scenery and long vacation were as responsible for James’ improvement as the rituals involving Ayuhuasca. A person could watch this film and conclude that depressed individuals should stop taking their medication and head straight for the Amazon Rainforest to drink magic plants. I sincerely hope that this is not the filmmakers’ intent.

Because of the mind’s relative complexity, disorders such as clinical depression are notoriously difficult to treat, and for the most part, incurable. Those who suffer from severe depression may be subject to a wide range of treatments, some which may be arduous but show little efficacy, or else be prescribed medications which can have side effects quite as detrimental as the symptoms they are reputed to relieve. Couple the imperfect treatment options with the profit motive of the pharmaceutical industry, and one can readily understand the desire to seek alternative remedies. However, great leaps have been made in the fields of psychiatry and psychology, and it’s a pity they’re ignored in this film.

With solid cinematography, highly relevant subject matter, and a few truly stirring moments, there is a very good documentary somewhere hidden in The Last Shaman; a documentary which might have been discovered through better narrative choices. As it stands, it is a poorly told, incomplete, one sided story.

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