Forgiveness, faith and falconry are among the motifs that run through Peruvian director Claudia Llosa’s first English-language film “Aloft,” which premieres at the Berlin Film Festival this week. Like her previous two features—debut “Madeinusa” and Golden Bear-winning follow-up “The Milk Of Sorrow”—“Aloft” boasts Llosa’s exceptionally lyrical eye for cinematography and her unassailable ability to create a haunted, slightly otherworldly atmosphere even out of banal events. But “Aloft” and its icy landscapes and feel of gently dropping barometric pressure can only distract so far from what is essentially an overwrought melodrama that here and there tips over into heavy-handedness despite the restrained beauty of its images. In fact, the lingering mood and the committed performances almost act as a smokescreen: it may not be until you’re out the door and across the road thinking back on what you’ve just watched that you realize how, well, daft it all is.
Playing out in two different time periods, the film tells the story of Nana (Jennifer Connelly), a farm worker raising two boys, Ivan and the younger Gully, who has a terminal illness. In parallel there unfolds the journey of the grown-up Ivan (Cillian Murphy) accompanied by journalist Jannia (Melanie Laurent) voyaging across snowy wastelands to see his mother for the first time in decades. The reasons for their estrangement/her abandonment of him are gradually revealed in flashbacks as they near their destination: Nana’s makeshift ice-bound tent complex where, now a celebrated healer and artist, she practices a kind of medicinal mysticism that Ivan writes off as quackery, but in which Jannia has her own reasons for wanting to believe. Oh, and Ivan breeds hybrid falcons which apparently is a job that someone might have and not merely a tenuous reason to include lots of shots of the admittedly photogenic birds as they soar into the air or commune with their equally photogenic handler.
Deep, deep, deep run the currents of guilt and blame that flow between mother and son, all related back to a tragic accident many years ago as Nana was only discovering her curative powers (under the mentorship of a vaguely cult-leader-like man called the Architect by his followers and played by “Certified Copy” star William Shimmell), with, even before that point, Ivan growing increasingly embittered at gaining so little of her attention, being the healthy one. Now, the tragedy in question involves the ever-popular metaphor of a frozen lake on which the ice gives way. Which, ok, we’d understand as a pretty, poetic and thematically relevant location for this sort of thing to happen, were it not for the fact that we then get a second scene of walking on cracking ice which does really seem like overkill. It’s as though we’re expected to believe that grown Ivan’s terror is rooted back to this early life incident, because it’s not enough that he’s you know, walking on frozen, cracking ice. No doubt Llosa intends repetitions like this to create depth and resonance, but in truth they feel like contrivances, and slightly soapy ones at that.
But Connelly is strong here, when not caked in heavy-browed aging makeup, finding nice foreshadowing notes of distance even in the early portions of her relationship with Ivan, as though her eyes are always on something just over the next horizon. And she has the most interesting arc, as a pragmatic non-believer driven to engage with the possibility of mysticism through desperation, but then feeling a pull so strong toward it that she leaves her family to pursue it. Murphy has less range to display, as we’re sort of corralled into reading all his current eccentricities as symptoms of this tortured relationship with his mother, but he’s an extremely charismatic actor and keeps us watching. Laurent’s role is the least well-developed, but she too manages to bring a little more to it, even when forced to deliver lines like “Don’t put me in a cage!” (he’s a falconer, see, and he keeps birds in cages). With dialogue like that, perhaps its better Llosa’s characters are by and large so taciturn.
But if it glimmers in and out of making any real sense and exerting any real hold over our imaginations, the film is really sunk by its absolute po-facedness, which, when the sheen of craftsmanship has dulled in retrospect, makes us realize that we were in fact supposed to be taking it all completely seriously. This self-seriousness has been a characteristic of all of Llosa’s films to date (she’s anything but trivial in her approach) but “Aloft” is smoother and higher profile by contrast with her earlier titles, and some of the disquieting weirdness of those films has been sacrificed in order to get there, leaving a movie that feels willfully, determinedly, enigmatic, where before that quality felt unforced. “Aloft” is a meditative, thoughtful film, that wants to glide like a hawk into the sky and inspire us to wonder, but its narrative has feet of clay that all the wispy winsomeness cannot conceal. [C+]