Luciferina


There is beauty in wisdom.

(2018) Supernatural Horror (Artsploitation) Sofia del Tuffo, Pedro Merlo, Marta Lubos, Marlena Sanchez, Francisco Donovan, Stefania Koessl, Gastón Cocchiarale, Desirée Gloria Salgueiro, Tomás Lipan, Vando Villamil, Victoria Carreras, Juan José Flores Qulspe, Maru Zapata, Juan Vitali, Silvana Di Sanzo. Directed by Gonzalo Calzado

 

Roman Catholicism is a bit different in Latin America than it is in the rest of the world. In the area from Mexico south to the tip of South America, it is more old school than its counterpart in Europe and North America (above Mexico anyway). In some cases, Catholicism has merged with native pagan religions to form often bizarre hybrids, leading to such things as Voodoo and Santeria.

Natalia (del Tuffo) is a 19-year-old novitiate who joined the convent to escape a chaotic and stressful household. She is happy in her choice – until the Mother Superior (Carreras) who informs her that her mother (Salgueiro) died in some sort of accident and that her father (Villamil) was gravely injured. Natalia is loathe to return home but the Reverend Mother insists.

Back home Natalia finds her more worldly sister Angela (Sanchez) who is not at all happy that Natalia abandoned her. However, the bond between sisters is still strong and when Angela asks Natalia to join her and her friends in the jungle for a Shamanistic ritual involving the psychotropic drug ayahuasca (which some may remember from the documentary The Last Shaman last year) that will allow them to explore their inner selves and maybe, along the way, exorcize some demons. Boy, they have no idea how literally true that is.

So accompanied by Angela’s abusive douchebag of a boyfriend Mauro  (Donovan), the sweet Abel (Merlo), know-it-all Osvaldo (Cocchiarale) and the fragile Mara (Koessl), they trek into the Amazonian jungles of Argentina. There they find the shaman at a ruined and abandoned abbey which Natalia has been having nightmares about – that’s never a good thing – her friends begin to have some horrible visions and it becomes apparent that Natalia is up against a powerful supernatural force that is intent on killing her friends – and having sex with Natalia to father an abomination. Aided by the midwife (Lubos) who delivered the baby in Natalia’s visions, she will have to take on a foe that may just bring about the end of days.

This is a very Catholic film; the attitudes throughout reflect the influence of the religion on the Argentine culture. Natalia is a virgin which is an important component of the story. It is no coincidence that the two who survive to the end are both virgins and deep down in the Catholic psyche that’s the way it should be.

The movie is bookended by CGI images of a baby floating around in the womb. The CGI is a bit primitive but the symbolism is unmistakable when the two images are taken together – I’ll leave that to you to figure out because I don’t want to give away too much of the plot. In fact, the movie is rife with symbolism (mostly of the Catholic variety). For example, Natalia’s mother before she died drew in her own blood crude drawings of the female uterus. Look more carefully and the shape is not unlike the Satanic ram’s head.

Del Tuffo is an amazing young actress who is absolutely fearless. She is required to be naïve innocent, pure of heart novitiate and eventually self-confident action hero and sexually rampant woman. There is a scene that other critics are referring to as a “sexorcism” (which is a bit cheesy but accurate) which is as graphic a sex scene as you’re likely to ever see from a Latin American film. Natalia is the most deeply defined character in the movie which helps del Tuffo but even without that she really plunges into the role and makes it her own.

Donovan is similarly strong as Mauro, although his character is a bit more cliché; so too is Cocchiarale who is the smart fat guy who is a bit of a know-it-all. Like most of Angela’s friends, he’s a bit of a jerk which is a departure from American norms for that kind of character; had this have been n American film, Osvaldo would have been sweet but annoying. He’s neither here, however.

The movie is a bit slow in the first half and relies overly much on jump scares. The score is a little too earnest, trying too hard to build up a sense of foreboding which is a good idea but could have been executed better. Given the jungle location, the Colonial architecture of the city and the hacienda-like home that Angela and Natalia grew up in, the images here range from really good to really, really good. I think if the movie had been paced a little better, this would have been one of the best horror films of the year. It’s not quite there – this has been a particularly strong year for horror movies – but it’s not far from the top.

REASONS TO GO: The performances are pretty solid all around. The gore and the special effects (for the most part) are spot on.
REASONS TO STAY: This isn’t as much of a roller coaster ride as I would have liked.
FAMILY VALUES: There is lots of profanity, graphic nudity, sex, graphic violence and gore as well as drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film in a proposed trilogy entitled The Trinity of the Virgins.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Now, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/7/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rosemary’s Baby
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Swimming With Men

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The Last Shaman


White privilege personified.

(2015) Documentary (Abramorama) James Freeman, Pepe, Sherry Haydock, Mason Wright Freeman, Ron, Guillermo, Kate. Directed by Raz Degan

 

Depression is not a medical issue to be trifled with. Every year, approximately 40,000 Americans take their own lives; anywhere from 50-75% of these suicides were motivated by depression. It affects over 25 million Americans, many of whom are unable to get treatment for it. In general, the medical industry treats depression with mood-altering drugs although regular psychotherapy is also used.

James Freeman has a severe case of depression. A young man born of wealth and privilege (both of his parents are physicians), his parents were able to afford to send him to the Phillips Academy, one of the most prestigious schools in the nation and a feeder school for Ivy League universities. However, elite schools of that nature tend to put an enormous amount of pressure on the students to excel. As Freeman graduated and later attended Middlebury College, he began to develop suicidal thoughts.

He did what he was supposed to. He saw psychiatrists, took the pills prescribed. He attended therapy sessions. As his condition grew more and more extreme, he even underwent electroconvulsive therapy, a kind of brain reboot which isn’t unlike electroshock treatment that is no longer practiced. Nothing worked. Freeman felt dead inside and his relationships with his parents and his girlfriend Kate suffered. James was a different person.

Desperate for solutions, he discovered testimonies about a plant found in the Peruvian Amazon called ayahuasca which had helped a number of people who were suffering from clinical depression. He decided to go down to Peru and find a shaman to administer the plant to him. His estranged father, who had approved of the electroconvulsive therapy, was not altogether pleased about the ayahuasca escapade; his mother also attempted to discourage him, but James was adamant. He felt that this was his last attempt to save his own life; if it didn’t work after ten months, he would be okay to kill himself as he would have tried everything.

So off to Peru and James finds that in some ways that ayahuasca is becoming commercialized. He meets several shaman and they seem more interested in money than in healing. Even a bantam-like America named Ron who had studied the rituals and knowledge of the Peruvian shaman ruefully exclaims “Every foreigner down here is out to exploit these people, myself included.” At one of the rituals, James witnesses the death by overdose of someone who shouldn’t have ingested the drug (and whom, the shaman emphatically states, he tried to talk him out of doing just that).

Finally, in a remote Shipibo village, he finally meets Pepe who refuses to take payment for his treatment. James is made to undergo a 100 day diet of tobacco and rice in isolation before undergoing the ayahuasca ceremony followed by being buried alive, for seven hours, then dug up and “reborn.”

During his isolation, James keeps a video diary and talks about having visions of the plants themselves (or representations thereof) talking to him and explaining that he is to be reborn. Following all of this we see James smiling, interacting with people and playing with local children. He seems to have been cured – but at a cost. Pepe is removed from the village for giving medicine away without charge. It seems the Non-Government Organization working with the village is trying to get them to use their medicines for profit and the betterment of the lives of the villagers. The capitalist rat race, it seems, has reached the Amazon.

The jungle locations are breathtaking at times, and also Degan gives us a glimpse into the local culture which is also welcome. Both of these items are what make seeing this documentary somewhat worthwhile. Unfortunately, the director makes some serious missteps. Much of the documentary feels staged, from James’ massive mood change and the shots of him interacting with the locals to the mood shots of the mom staring out the window in concern and particularly the sorta-psychedelic shots that are meant to convey the effects of the drug on James. Those moments don’t help the documentary at all and take the viewer out of the experience every time Degan utilizes them, which is fairly often.

The documentary also has to overcome James himself. It’s hard to sympathize with someone who is able to afford to fly off to South America for exotic cures; most people who suffer from depression can’t do so. It’s not really fair to minimize depression; it’s a very real and often deadly mental illness and there’s no doubt that James had a severe case of it. Mostly, it’s the perception of the audience; James often comes off as privileged and a little bit arrogant. The scene of him being paddled along a stream to the Shipibo village reeks of colonialism, even if unintentionally.

The film also comes off as an advertisement for drug use. We get almost no scientific reflection on the use of ayahuasca and how efficacious it might be. All we get is essentially anecdotal evidence. It’s like the stoner claims that marijuana is completely harmless; the fact of the matter is that nothing not part of the body that is added in excessive amounts is harmless. Even water can kill you if you drink too much of it.

It also feels that James isn’t confronting the source of his depression but merely medicating it. Maybe that’s something he intends to do and maybe I’m overindulging in armchair psychology but a lot about this documentary feels wrong. This is the rare instance in which I wish there’d been more talking heads; some expert commentary from psychiatrists, pharmacologists and physicians would have been welcome. I have to admit that I would be hesitant to recommend this line of treatment for anyone and despite the disclaimer that comes during the end credits, I can’ help that the filmmaker is advocating for just that.

REASONS TO GO: The Amazonian backgrounds are absolutely gorgeous. The look into indigenous culture is welcome.
REASONS TO STAY: This feels very staged and self-indulgent. The movie has to battle “poor little rich kid” syndrome.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of drug use as well as a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The director got involved in the story after ayahuasca was used to help cure him of a respiratory illness and also helped his mother with her own depression.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/13/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Mosquito Coast
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Pop Aye