“Aloft” is not an easy film. Peruvian director Claudia Llosa’s meditative, generation-spanning drama about a falconer (Cillian Murphy) on a journey to find his healer and artist mother (Jennifer Connelly) languishes in tragedy. The frozen landscape is sun-soaked but unforgiving, and the characters are burdened with the weight of the world and a futile hope for salvation.
The melancholy tale first introduces Nana (Connelly) and her two young boys Ivan (Zen McGrath) and Gully (Winta McGrath) as they attempt to join up with a New Age religious group of sorts. They wear heavy knits and furrowed brows and follow a man they call The Architect (William Shimell). Gully is sick and regressing. The Architect has healing powers, but seems to use them only selectively.
Ivan inadvertently causes immediate trouble when his pet falcon flies into a delicate and forbidden twig hut that we can only presume was built by The Architect. Later, one of the disciples shoots the falcon. It’s a premonition of the strife that’s soon to follow for Nana and Ivan as they attempt to live while knowing that death is imminent for Gully.
The story soon jumps to the present, where a now-grown Ivan (Murphy) takes up with Jannia (Melanie Laurent), a French documentarian who is interested in finding Ivan’s mother. Still as cheerless as he was as a kid, Ivan leaves behind his beautiful wife (Oona Chaplin, granddaughter of Charlie Chaplin) and baby to accompany Jannia to the Arctic Circle and find some peace and perhaps an explanation as to why he was abandoned 20 years prior.
The narrative alternates between the present and the past frequently as we learn more about Ivan’s childhood, Nana’s ascent to healer status, and the events that explain the separation.
Connelly gives a bold and raw performance as a strong but increasingly desperate mother looking for a way to save her youngest. She has a world-weary spirituality that lets her fully disappear into Nana. Both child actors also expertly convey the bone-deep sadness necessary for this story. Zen McGrath, in particular, nails the innocent deviance that Hunter McCracken exhibited in Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life.”
In the present, Laurent is elegant and stoic as ever as the mysterious, if underdeveloped, force that gets Ivan to finally take some steps to face up to his troubled past. There are moments on their trip to meet Nana that are infused with a tantalizing energy, including the simple joy of a French pop song playing in the background and the true fear of standing on an icy lake that’s about to crack.
Those moments, though, are few. The majority of the film strives for ethereal lyricism but the melodrama of these lives never proves strong enough to anchor any real emotional connection. Nana’s spiritual evolution, which should probably be the engine behind the past, is obscured, elusive, and, unfortunately, dull.
Llosa was previously nominated for a foreign language Academy Award for her 2009 film “The Milk of Sorrow.” “Aloft,” which she wrote and directed, is her English-language debut and has made the film festival rounds since premiering at the 64th International Berlin Film Festival last year.
“Aloft” is ambitious and lovely in many ways. And yet, despite its formal achievements and all-in performances by its talented cast, the film buckles under the ponderous themes and labored story. Ultimately “Aloft” is a beautiful, leaden slog.
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