A wise falcon will hide its talons, but should a filmmaker be so concealing? In her meditative downer about abandonment and healing, the Oscar-nominated Peruvian director Claudia Llosa shrouds her story and reveals clues slowly – a sort of suspense poetry. The allegories aren't particularly obvious, and maybe that hawk in the sky is just a hawk in the sky.
Aloft concerns a single mother of two small boys. The younger one is apparently very sick, perhaps not curable by conventional methods. Jennifer Connelly stars as Nana, the mother, an intense farm-yard veterinarian who has no time for eyeshadow and who lives and works in a mucky, rural, cold part of the world. She's no-nonsense and rough around the edges; let's just say she's comfortable doing this and that in a barn.
She's also dedicated to the ritual surrounding a travelling faith healer and folk artist. She (and a caravan of others) follow this guy to what could very well be the ends of the earth – or Manitoba, where Aloft was shot. There's something post-apocalyptic about it when Nana had her two boys hitch a ride to a snow-scaped happening that involves the construction of a twig-based healing structure and a soul-crushing lottery system to determine who is to be treated by miracle intervention.
Not a lot of context happening so far, which gives Montreal cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc free rein to create the look of a beautifully grim world. He goes with an artful documentary style, mixing jittery, invasive shots with big-sky angles that never seem cold.
Using two parallel threads, the story moves between past and present. The latter is set 20 years or so after the older boy, Ivan, was abandoned by his mother. He's now a doleful falconer, portrayed by a silently raging Cillian Murphy. The Irish actor has shown he can play a creep or a villain, but he's neither of those characters here. He's a deeply burdened brother and intensely hurt son.
With the help of a French journalist (Mélanie Laurent), the adult Ivan heads off to reunite with his mother, who is now a faith-healing guru herself, stationed at the Arctic Circle. Ivan and the journalist take an ice road to nowhere for what would have to be an intense reunion.
It's a heavy scene there. Cards are laid. The mother has acquired a hard-earned sereneness and spirituality – she's the sage on the proverbial mountaintop. Indeed, here is where we hope all is explained. But the truth is elusive, and so is Aloft. Maybe viewers will figure it out cleaner than this reviewer did. And maybe the best answers aren't served on platters.
LIGHTS, CAMERA, ACTION
Montreal cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc speaks about shooting on Lake Winnipeg, in the dead of winter, for Claudia Llosa's new drama Aloft.
On flashing from past to present: We decided not to stylize the different eras. The actors are different, the characters are different, the environment is different. But I changed nothing in my camera or in the lighting or in the way I was shooting. It was important for us to let the story speak, and not let a gimmick speak to the viewer.
On filming in harsh conditions: When you're shooting in a cold environment in the middle of winter, you're expecting a slower process – which it was. But nothing could bring us down. It was a difficult shoot, but there was such good energy. And the camera never let us down either. These new digital cameras are so well built, and they radiate so much heat, that they won't break down in the cold.
On the huge flatness of Lake Winnipeg: It's almost like a desert. There's a lot of sky. The story ends up at the end of the world. There's no texture, there are no surroundings. There's nothing. It was pure. And we wanted to achieve that purity, where a single line can express so much more than a thousand.