Aloft: Berlin Review

Jose Haro
Magical realist fable lacks magic.

Former Oscar contender's first English-language feature is a handsome but pretentious winter's tale about a New Age healer and her estranged son.

BERLIN -- A starry international co-production from the Peruvian writer-director and former Oscar nominee Claudia Llosa, Aloft floats into the Berlin film festival weighed down with high expectations. It opens with a pig giving birth on camera, which is always a promising start, and ends with a self-help sermon which seems to suggest that a child's tragic death is all part of Mother Nature's cosmic plan. Which is plain fatuous. The meandering journey between these two points is bumpy, occasionally sublime, but ultimately disappointing. Strip away its gorgeous wintry landscapes and we are left with a symphony of ponderous New Age mumbo-jumbo masquerading as philosophical wisdom.

Back in 2009, Llosa's previous feature The Milk of Sorrow won an Academy nomination and Berlin's biggest prize, the Golden Bear. In that film, she balanced magical realism with hard-nosed reality. Sadly, in her first English-language feature, she over-indulges the former at the expense of the latter. Festival programmers and distributors will likely be swayed by the name cast and director's track record, but commercial prospects look shaky. Then again, given the surprisingly high numbers of people who read Paulo Coelho books and believe crystals have healing powers, the target market for Aloft is potentially huge.

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The non-linear story unfolds in two interwoven parallel threads, chronologically vague but roughly two decades apart. The early chapter centers on Nana (Jennifer Connelly), a single mother living in a snowbound backwater town with two young sons, one of whom is dying of an ill-defined medical condition. In desperation, she takes the boy to a New Age healer (William Shimell) who offers his ritual services inside a fragile canopy of twigs and branches, but the visit ends in chaos and disaster. However, the healer reveals to Nana that she too has healing powers, and she begins to build on his work, curing sick children and weaving her own artisan woodland sculptures.

The later plotline concerns Nana's eldest son Ivan (Cillian Murphy) in adulthood, a moody family man and hawk breeder who has been bitterly estranged from his reclusive mother for decades. When wily documentary maker Ressmore (Melanie Laurent) tracks Ivan down in a bid to locate his mother, now a guru-like healer who shuns media attention, he initially responds with sullen hostility. But the pair eventually agree a cautious truce, embarking on an epic journey together deep into the Arctic Circle, where an elderly Nana runs a kind of remote cult community.

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Aloft was shot in the deep-frozen Canadian Midwest but lacks firm geographical or social context, possibly because Llosa is aiming for a kind of quasi-mythic universality. The exterior vistas of infinite snowscapes are mostly magnificent, though the interiors are mostly underlit and drab. Connelly, Murphy and Laurent all give committed performances that carry them through the script's more purple passages. All three also get to bare their flesh in rough extra-marital sex scenes, which seem oddly superfluous to the plot and barely merit a mention amidst all the high-minded waffle about love and forgiveness.

At heart, Llosa's biggest production to date is a fortune-cookie philosophy lesson about closure, guilt and unresolved Mommy Issues. At times it looks and feels like a feminized twist on Malick's The Tree of Life, but lacks the same technical virtuosity and emotional force. Michael Brook's cloying ambient soundtrack, forever tugging at our tear ducts with its oceanic swells, belongs in an air freshener commercial rather than a serious drama. In purely sensory terms, Aloft is not an altogether unpleasant experience, but the spiritual uplift it purports to offer can equally be achieved with a long hot bath. Deep down, this is a very shallow movie.

Production Companies: Wanda Vision, Arcadia Motion Pictures
Producers: Jose Maria Morales, Ibon Cormenzana
Starring: Jennifer Connelly, Cillian Murphy, Melanie Laurent, Oona Chaplin, William Shimell
Director: Claudia Llosa
Cinematographer: Nicolas Bolduc
Editor: Guillermo de la Cal
Music: Michael Brook
Sound Designer: Fabiola Ordoyo
Sales company: Dreamcatchers, Barcelona
Unrated, 122 minutes