The snow-encrusted landscapes of the Arctic Circle provide a sweeping backdrop for spiritual yearning in Claudia Llosa's "Aloft," but the heavy-handed drama at the center of Peruvian director Claudia Llosa's first English language feature can't keep pace. While the movie benefits from committed, serious performances by Jennifer Connelly and Cillian Murphy, the constant time-shifting of its overly mopey narrative and obvious, soul-searching themes dominate Llosa's manipulative followup to her acclaimed sophomore effort, 2009's "The Milk of Sorrow."
Like that movie, "Aloft" lingers in tragedy and somber characters, yielding a project better at generating mood than deepening its plot over the course of two alternating eras: In the first, farmer Nana (Connelly) struggles to care for her two young boys, one of whom suffers from a terminal illness; decades later, the movie follows the plight of her adult older son Ivan (Murphy), who hasn't seen his mother since she abandoned him during his childhood and now leads a challenged married life while caring for his falcons. After a woman named Jannia (Melanie Laurent) shows up at Ivan's own farm claiming to be a television journalist, she expresses interest in tracking down Ivan's long-lost mother, who joined up with a cult-like faith healer (William Shimell) years ago after the man convinced her that she had powers similar to his own. Struggling to face the demons of his past, Ivan joins the young woman in her quest; the result is a dreary road trip through the tundra that sets the stage for more flashbacks.
Throughout its two-pronged plotting, "Aloft" takes on a paradoxical quality: While its grave tone suffers from monotony as it shifts between two periods, Nicolas Bolduc's sweeping visuals of the expansive white scenery and Michael Brook's symphonic compositions create a heightened poetic feel. Ivan's childhood experiences (during which time he's played with furious angst by Zen McGrath) maintain an unsettling dimension so long as it remains unclear when or how his mother left him — and what happened to his ailing younger brother, whom she initially tries to help when she takes him to the aforementioned healer.
But the grown Ivan's ensuing anger over the past holds less appeal. Mostly, he whines to Jannia about his uneasiness about the past in a series of tense exchanges filled with pensive gazes, while the sexual tension between the two steadily rises. Murphy does his best to imbue Ivan's plight with a credibly gloomy disposition, but ultimately has nothing to latch onto save for the bland whiteness surrounding him. The result is an operatic, mournful atmosphere struggling to coalesce into a substantial concept. But Llosa constantly changes between the crisis of faith plaguing her characters in the past and the familial issues dominated the second half, only drawing them together with a misfortune late in the story neatly positioned to explain why the adult Ivan has so many misgivings about reuniting with his estranged parent.
Nevertheless, Llosa's lyrical style and patient exposition make for an intermittently engrossing experience. Her story is littered with intriguing signifiers to indicate her characters' search for catharsis, particularly the majestic hawks that possess a carefree, awe-inspiring power envied by all of the movie's human cast. Likewise, Ivan's lingering doubts about his mother's intentions take on an intriguing existential dimension thanks to the minimalist setting, particularly during one harrowing sequence when he and Jannia wander across a frozen lake at night while he grows paranoid about the cracks beneath his feet.
But cracks in the bigger problems come from cracks in Llosa's storytelling approach. The recurring device of using the past to comment on the present and vice versa careens towards a predictable confrontation between mother and son — during which the story of their hostility is upended by an all-too-handy uplifting revelation. It's a lovely climactic moment on its own terms, but within the context of the movie's structure, it plays like a cheap shot. Many scenes earlier, the skeptical Nana wonders if spiritual healing is a form of "praying on other people's weaknesses," a critique that applies to "Aloft" as well.
Criticwire Grade: C+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Sony Pictures Classics picked up "Aloft" ahead of its premiere in competition at the Berlin International Film Festival. Interest in the cast and the filmmaker's existing arthouse cred may help elevate the movie's profile in specialty release, but mixed word of mouth is likely to limit its long-term commercial potential.