Despite the mostly unfavorable reception, I had been looking forward to Claudia Llosa’s Aloft ever since it premiered more than a year ago at the Berlin Film Festival. I am Peruvian, Llosa is by virtually all metrics the most celebrated director in the history of Peruvian cinema, and Aloft is her first English-language movie. Berlin is the festival that saw her come into the spotlight as an international auteur, premiering her first film Madeinusa and awarding the Golden Bear to her sophomore film The Milk of Sorrow, which went on to also be nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2009 Academy Awards. All the rumblings about Aloft‘s quality (or lack thereof) had me waiting for the movie’s American release.
Reading the criticism that came out of Berlin makes me believe the movie has been re-edited since its February 2014 premiere, perhaps at the request of distributor Sony Pictures Classics, which was very quick to acquire the movie for distribution (it acquired the movie at least six days before it premiered at the Festival). Re-edits between Festivals and commercial releases are not unusual, though. Inglourious Basterds and Nebraska are two of the most recent examples of movies that got a relatively cool reception at Cannes and went on to have successful theatrical runs after they were re-edited. I don’t know what the original cut of Aloft looked like, and whether or not the new edit is an improvement; I can only say that the version I saw (at the Tribeca Film Festival) was, sadly, not very good.
Like Llosa’s previous movies, Aloft centers around the scars of traumatic events in its characters’ pasts. The movie is told in two timelines. In the past, Jennifer Connelly stars as Nana, a woman who is doing everything she can to save the life of her young child, who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. In the future, Cillian Murphy plays Ivan, Connelly’s other child, who is approached by a journalist (Mélanie Laurent) who wants to do a documentary about Nana, who became a holistic healer and moved to a remote camp in the Arctic Circle.
There are two things that disappointed me about Aloft, which is very economic in its dramatics, if a little too dour for my taste. The first, is that once it becomes clear exactly how the two timelines relate to each other (from a character, not a structural, point of view), the explanation for Nana’s transition into a life of mystical medicine, and the ardent resentment that Ivan feels for his mother ends up being rather unsatisfying. It all boils down to a tragic incident that sticks out like a sorely melodramatic thumb and clashes with the movie’s muted, verite filmmaking.
Without going into detailed spoilers, I would say that my main problem here is that the movie’s emotional crux relies too much in the psychology of a small child. Getting into a child’s mind is a very hard thing for filmmakers to do, especially when it comes to prestigious dramas. The most successful movies about children tend to be more expressionistic, either bending the world around them to the rules of childhood imagination (like Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are), or using them as a springboard to visualize the anxieties of parent-child relationships (like Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook). Aloft‘s Ivan barely seems like a character to me. The only thing that I know about him, is that he is angry.
It’s hard to sympathize with an angry child no matter how cute he is (The Babadook understood this, and used it to its advantage beautifully), and it’s especially hard to sympathize with Ivan, when his anger seems to have been designed to create conflict for the movie’s central relationship. A conflict that, truth be told, is not really explored in a meaningful way. There are many scenes in which Connelly talks to young Ivan, and shares philosophical tidbits about life being tough, in the type of broad speeches that you usually find in middlebrow cable dramas. There is not enough time spent in making the audience understand what the relationship between Nana and Ivan is, because despite them sharing many scenes, there is virtually no communication between them.
The lack of communication brings me to the second thing that I didn’t like about Aloft: the movie’s ending, which comes abruptly, and reveals how shallow its characters really are. Nana is a healer, and the movie is about wounds of the past, but at the end, it’s not entirely clear what wounds are being healed, if they’re being healed at all. The movie’s final images, of a falcon soaring over the icy landscape let us know our characters have found a bittersweet, but ultimately freeing resolution, but we have no idea what said resolution is.
Ambiguity doesn’t work unless it can rest on strong pillars. Fausta, The Milk of Sorrow‘s protagonist, made many frustrating decisions, but she was also a very interesting character. The symbolism wasn’t always subtle in Llosa’s previous movies, but it was effectively built around characters with truthful stories. The characters in Aloft exist only to serve the movie’s tragic plot. They feel hollow. Nana’s cries of desperation become laughable.
Aloft is a disappointment, but the ball is still on Llosa’s side of the court. Some of the best living directors have had tremendous troubles, and disastrous results, when they’ve ventured into English-language productions. Llosa should take comfort in the fact that, despite My Blueberry Nights, Wong Kar-wai is still a magnificent director. I’m still looking forward to what she does next.
Grade: 4 out of 10