Published Jun 04, 2015Peruvian director Claudia Llosa's first two feature films, Madeinusa and The Milk of Sorrow, were effective, albeit provincial, exercises in cultural analysis. Madeinusa was a dark coming-of-age story about a girl in an isolated Peruvian village where the locals believe that during the two days following Good Friday, God — being "dead" — is unable to monitor their activities, leaving them to collectively indulge in sin without repercussion. The Milk of Sorrow was similarly based on indigenous Peruvian tradition, detailing the transference of an illness — a fear — from an abused mother's breast milk to her child. They were stories of myth, stories steeped in local culture that appealed to outsiders not through identification (necessarily) but through curiosity and intrigue. This is why Llosa's English language debut, Aloft, has a peculiar, almost disjointed, feeling to it.
Thematically and structurally, Aloft similarly adheres to a magical realist template, tackling gritty subject matter in a world inhabited by flawed characters with a backdrop of spiritual confusion and possibility. It follows single mother Nana (Jennifer Connelly) as she struggles to find a cure to her youngest son Gully's (Winta McGrath) inoperable tumour.
Before this narrative is clarified, and before Nana takes Gully and his older brother Ivan (Zen McGrath) to a spiritual healer of questionable legitimacy, there's a telling juxtaposition of moments. After helping a pig give birth — a scene depicted in full detail with Connelly elbow deep in a pig — Nana passionlessly screws her boss in a barn storage room. Motherhood is boiled down to its basic, unglamorous physiology, and is linked to the machinations of sexuality. That this sex act — and all other sex acts in the film — are portrayed as functional and aren't romanticized (they tend to come about out of obligation or sheer biological instinct) isn't an accident.
As the storyline involving Nana and her sons progresses, detailing her iron will and her older son's quiet resentment towards, and lack of empathy for, his younger brother, a second narrative pops up, with older Ivan (Cillian Murphy) — now estranged from his mother — tagging along with a journalist (Melanie Laurent) to the Arctic Circle, where Nana resides as a spiritual healer.
Ivan isn't a particularly likeable character. While brief, his interaction with his own wife and child is marked by insouciance; he's far more interested in his hawks, which links back to the childhood he's presumably preoccupied with, wherein his childhood pet was shot after it destroyed an ersatz healing tent made of twigs. This pairing of past with present does help add some emotional investment on the events that led to Ivan's current situation, and considering that Nana is portrayed as a sceptic in her younger years, answers the question of how she came to be the very thing she questions and somewhat resents.
Llosa's underlying dialogue about the idea of motherhood as sacrifice and ideas of karma — the biblical "life for a life" philosophy, in particular — are clearly the motivation behind this story. While the characters are uniquely flawed, products of equal and opposite reactions, they're not given the same level of attention as the spiritual conceits. In a broad sense, we understand the dynamic between Ivan and Nana, but the eventual amalgamation of storylines still leaves an abundance of gaps.
While gaps in plot would be fine, as this is an emotional tale, the basic emotional tapestry of these characters is often truncated in favour of opaque philosophizing. While actions often do speak louder than words, there's just not enough human contemplation here, or time for the actors to inhabit each moment for the expansive cinematography and hazy imagery to hold the power that it could.
This is also true of the performances. Connelly is a commanding presence when she's on the screen, vacillating between loving mother and determined force of nature, but Llosa is far more interested in handheld close-ups of minutiae than intimate reactions with her character. There's always a wall between viewers and the intimacy of what is going on, and it leaves Aloft feeling like a bit of a missed opportunity. Part of this stems from the fundamental problem of trying to transpose a South American ethos onto a North American template, but the main issue is a story that knows what it wants to say thematically but isn't rounded enough to make it work as a cohesive piece.
Still, there are many great ideas amidst the gorgeous cinematography and layered acting, even if it never quite hits the intended mark.