What: Film Review
Directed and Written by: Claudia Llosa
Produced by: Ibon Cormenzana, Phyllis Lang, José María Morales
Starring: Jennifer Connelly, Cillian Murphy, Mélanie Laurent, Oona Chaplin, William Shimell
Running Time (in min.): 112 minutes
Language: English, French with English subtitles
Official Selection of the 2015 Sundance Film Festival
There are less obvious metaphors for the human spirit than a magnificent falcon in a cage, but emotional subtlety is not at the heart of Peruvian auteur Claudia Llosa’s films. Her most recent, Aloft, picks up where her 2009 breakout, La teta asustada, left off psychologically: at the moment when lifelong innocence gives way to human loss and great trauma. Where the earlier feature focused on Llosa’s native Peru and the poisoned breast milk that passed trauma along to new generations of women, Aloft – which had its World Premiere at the 2014 Berlin International Film Festival – traces the pain that a mother instills in her sensitive son through abandonment. High concept, yes; but certainly not subtle.
Alternating between mom Nana Kunning’s (Jennifer Connelly) hunt for a spiritual healer for her youngest son, Gully (Winta McGrath, miscast and annoying), in the past, and the older son, Ivan’s, search for Nana twenty years in the future, Llosa places us into an unreal space-time as one might in a fable. 10-year-old Ivan is played by a talented young actor, Zen McGrath, as a premature curmudgeon, furious at having to do basic chores and to help his single mother support Gully through a mysterious illness. The elder Ivan (Cillian Murphy in a much-needed meaty role), presently married, remains hostile and unable to care emotionally for his wife (Oona Chaplin, Game of Thrones) or their newborn child. When we first meet, it seems that whatever hate he had for Nana failed to dissipate over the decades.
But his physical and emotional distance from his mother – now a healer herself in the Arctic Circle after discovering a mentor, Newman (William Shimell) – is disrupted when documentary journalist Jannia (Mélanie Laurent) stops by Ivan’s falconry shop to dig into his past. (You read that right: his falconry shop.) Jannia has spent years hunting down Nana’s particular coordinates, and she needs Ivan in more ways than one.
Llosa, working again as both writer and director, specializes in a brand of lyric magic realism well known to consumers of South American cultural products. In the context of Peru’s national and supranational-continental history, her spiritual sensibility takes on a sort of political nuance as a style of rebellion and artistic revisionism; how the colonial pain of the general region becomes filtered through a story is what made The Milk of Sorrow into such a psychotropic experience. Llosa’s gift for straddling the line between superstitious, almost surrealist drama and visual naturalism sets her apart from a great many filmmakers from Latin America and otherwise – and appropriately, her last film was the first Peruvian feature ever nominated for the Best Foreign Language Oscar.
Yet for reasons both contextual and creative, Aloft falters along those same generic lines, turning occult symbols like falcon mastery and True Detective-like healing structures into festival-approved quirks. Llosa’s venture into English-language storytelling is far from the issue, as her actors are more than up to the challenge of speaking around one another’s aphorisms and emotional voids. Murphy and Laurent, in particular, make a striking pair, while flashbacks with Connelly and Shimell – finally making good on his spectacular performance in Kiarostami’s Certified Copy  – create an interesting doubling effect.
Rather, it’s the fact of her decision to set the film in an unnamed space and time that saps any urgency or dramatic value from the dreamy pacing. Gone is the post-Pinochet Chile of Allende’s novels or the Junta-set Argentina of Borges’s short stories. Working with the gifted cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc, Llosa works with documentary-style shakicam and eye-expanding wide angles, but the beauty of her arctic settings (the film was shot in large part in Manitoba) feels empty, personality-less, and vapid. There’s so little history to the landscape that as Jannia and Ivan confront their inner demons on the road to Nana’s, Aloft loses its emotional sustenance, and goes fully slack. It’s a loss that feels particularly disappointing given the film’s Spotlight screening at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, an honor befitting Llosa’s talent if not the film’s quality.
An almost ridiculously empty film: what good– among other things– is a road trip that, for all practical, logistical, and dramatic purposes, starts nowhere in particular and goes nowhere in particular? (Watching “Aloft,” I thought how Ressemore and Ivan might have driven ten times around the same Midwest “country block” in mid-January, and no one would have been any the wiser.) Add those heaping dollops of very silly mysticism (we don’t need no steenking HMOs in twenty-first-century North America (or maybe it’s North Armenia: who knows?)! We follow The Architect!), plus Murphy and Connelly’s surly and UN.WAVER.ING INTEN.SITY. (Murpy’s scruffy Ivan is a particularly punchable young sulker), and “Aloft” veers dangerously close to parody. Paging Rob Brydon….