Luciferina

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Luciferina
"Gonzalo Calzada's vividly atmospheric film is itself a space in which reality and dreams overlap, in which formal narrative structures break down as our heroine strives to gain control of her identity and destiny."

Despite having featured in the work of psychic explorers like Timothy Leary and Terence McKenna, the ayahuasca vine is today little known outside the Americas, and even in North America its fame has declined. It's traditionally mixed into a tea for use in spiritual ceremonies among the peoples of the Amazon basin, and is known for inducing intense hallucinations, feelings of dying or being close to death, and a sense of discovery of the true self. Shamans are willing to offer the experience to those who seek it regardless of cultural background, and as such it has gained an important position at the intersection of multiple religious traditions in the region.

Imported by the Spanish in the 16th Century, Roman Catholicism has become Argentina's dominant religion. Its cultural influence has been profound but as in other parts of the world it is now practised in lite form by the majority of its adherents. For a teenager to set her heart on becoming a nun is seen as quite peculiar. Nevertheless, that's what Natalia (SofĂ­a Del Tuffo) has done, and she seems blissfully contented going about her daily duties in the cool marble halls of her convent until another duty comes calling. Her father has become gravely ill. The convent is not a place for hiding from the world, the mother superior says firmly. She must go and look after him.

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Natalia hates her childhood home. It's clearly full of unhappy memories, and has now been made even more unpleasant by the presence of her sister's sexually aggressive boyfriend. In this tense environment, Natalia has visions. They relate to her dead mother and a mysterious shrine. Perhaps it's her curiosity about this that persuades her to join her sister's friends on a trip into the jungle to take ayahuasca. There, she begins to question her senses even before the drug has taken hold - because in the shadow of the ruined Catholic asylum where the ceremony is to take place, she encounters the same shrine.

Gonzalo Calzada's vividly atmospheric film is itself a space in which reality and dreams overlap, in which formal narrative structures break down as our heroine strives to gain control of her identity and destiny. Here, Catholic tradition is deeply entangled with shamanic practice and belief, just as the jungle has tangled itself through and around the crumbling, magnificent buildings. The shaman welcomes Natalia as someone whose coming has been foretold. She has visions of a screaming woman held down atop an altar by nuns who believe she is possessed. Soon the people she arrived with are running for their lives. Is this real? All she can do is try to survive and protect others where possible. She's scared in a way she has never been before. Here, the Devil is a very real presence and Natalia rebels against a role in prophecy that is not to her liking.

The delirious style of the film lends itself to high drama. With strong performances from the young leads, it achieves real power in places, but there are pacing issues and some sequences dealing with diabiolism are drawn out for too long. People with strong Catholic beliefs of their own may find this less of a problem as spiritual concerns sometimes take precedence over other aspects of the characters' psychology. The iconography of religion is everywhere, from the symbolic dress of the shaman to the candles in the crypt where the ceremony begins, creating circles of light; later we will see circles of salt. The rigid, columnar architecture of the colonists, and the male-centred thinking it represents, runs up against the organic magic of the jungle, promising a power that Natalia might draw on herself if she can summon up the will, if she can connect with the sexuality she has always sought to repress.

For all the challenges it creates, shooting in the jungle has a gift to offer to cinematographers: the air is suffused with moisture, making everything look luminous. Claudio Beiza gives us human figures like living marble statues, glances light off round windows in an echo of rippling water, draws the eye to shadowed entranceways full of threat and promise. Though the film never quite attains the heights it strains towards, it casts a spell nonetheless, and stands out as one of the most daring religiously-themed horror films of recent years.

Reviewed on: 27 Aug 2018
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Natalia is a 19-year-old novice who reluctantly returns home to say goodbye to her dying father. However, when she meets up with her sister and her friends, she decides instead to travel the jungle and explore the spiritual world through ayahuasca.

Director: Gonzalo Calzada

Writer: Gonzalo Calzada

Starring: Victoria Carreras, Gastón Cocchiarale, Agustin Daulte, Sofia Del Tuffo

Year: 2018

Runtime: 111 minutes

Country: Argentina

Festivals:

Frightfest 2018

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