Claudia Llosa won the Berlin Golden Bear with her small-scale, smartly judged sophomore feature The Milk of Sorrow. For her follow-up, the Peruvian director moves confidently into the treacherous territory of an international co-production with a cast of stars toplined by Jennifer Connelly. Aloft's disastrous reception in the Berlinale suggested a case of a director over-reaching, drowning a fragile, under-developed story in self-important bombast; but, though Aloft is not so much a step forward as a step sideways, that is not really the case.
Prolonging the director's recurring theme of the combat between tradition and progress, faith and pragmatism, Aloft also returns to the concept of belief as a way to make the world right again. Everything in the film's Northern snow setting suggests a muted post-apocalypse, a world getting by as best it can away from civilization, where hope seems in short supply - the fact that Ms. Llosa never really explains the geographic circumstances of her tale is to her credit, heightening the project's "magical realism" credentials in a way that is simultaneously alluring and somewhat hackneyed.
Mesmerisingly photographed by Nicolas Bolduc in the vast expanses of Northern Canada, Aloft tells two parallel stories. In one, outpost farmer/veterinarian Nana (Ms. Connelly), technically a woman of science, seeks out a local faith healer (William Shimell) in hope he can help the youngest of her two boys, who is terminally ill, realising in the process she too has "the healing touch". In the other, moody falconer Ivan (Cillian Murphy) is convinced by enterprising reporter Jania (Mélanie Laurent) to set out in search of his mother, a faith healer with whom he has broken all contact.
No prizes for guessing both plots are set in different time frames and will eventually converge, though Ms. Llosa makes them do so in rather tantalizing ways, in a film whose scaffold is entirely built of dichotomies and oppositions: darkness/light, tradition/progress, faith/resignation, certainty/doubt, individual/collective, family/nature, etc. Those oppositions are what has torn the Kunnings apart over time, for no apparent gain, but have also launched their characters in life-defining paths.
In that sense, Aloft merely extends the questioning of traditional folk superstitions felt in The Milk of Sorrow into a greater, more expansive canvas. Always enveloping and enticing even when not entirely convincing dramatically or narratively, propelled by an ambition that would be praised in other cases, it's the work of a filmmaker growing in formal talent and confidence, even if having bitten more than she could chew.
Spain, Canada, France 2013
Cast Jennifer Connelly, Cillian Murphy, Mélanie Laurent, William Shimell, Peter McRobbie, Andy Murray, Ian Tracey, Oona Chaplin
Director and screenwriter Claudia Llosa; cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc (colour, widescreen); composer Michael Brook; designer Eugenio Caballero; costumes Heather Neale; editor Guillermo de la Cal; producers José María Morales, Ibon Cormenzana and Phyllis Laing; production companies Wanda Visión, Arcadia Motion Pictures and Buffalo Gal Pictures in co-production with Manitoba Films and Noodles Production
Screened February 12th 2014, Berlinale Palast, Berlin (Berlinale 2014 official competition press screening)
ALOFT (Trailer). Directed by Claudia Llosa from MONCHO - COLOURIST on Vimeo.