If you hated Eat Pray Love but you love The Last Shaman, you’re a hypocrite, because it’s the same goddamn story, only worse. Here’s where I out myself as someone who enjoyed Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert’s much-maligned book about dealing with divorce and mental health struggles through opulent and ascetic travel. Gilbert is a lively prose stylist, and I didn’t even mind the movie. I’m not interested in perpetuating the culturally mediated idea that women’s travel stories are fluffy lifestyle porn, while men’s journeys are important inquiries into the soul. But you might have to if you want to get through the documentary The Last Shaman, which makes Eat Pray Love look like A Moveable Feast.
The Last Shaman is basically an extended infomercial for white people co-opting the spiritual practices of indigenous Peruvians. It’s an almost embarrassingly bad take (complete with misspelled title cards) on an interesting story about James, a young American from Boston who decides to treat his depression by traveling to Peru to study with shamans who use the ayahuasca plant as medicine. To be clear: James’ story—which includes witnessing a death, being partially buried alive, communing with plants in isolation, and engaging with his adopted community—is compelling enough. And anyone who is willing to go on record about their mental health has my respect. But it’s too bad his story was entrusted to these filmmakers, who frame it with such reverence and so little critical thought that the narrative we’re left with is completely bereft of nuance.
There’s also something uncomfortable about the film crew moving through the sacred spaces of another culture without really delving into their history, instead focusing on a preselected white protagonist. Everything about this documentary feels premeditated and heavy-handed, with no shortage of unexamined cultural appropriation and oversimplification.
Eat Pray Love is not A Moveable Feast, but Gilbert never seemed to think it was. If The Last Shaman had possessed even a little of that self-awareness, it might be a better, more interesting film. It doesn’t.