Ambiguity is a crucial strength of many art films and the death of so many more. It’s a delicate quality to court. Get it right and the film is enigmatically fascinating. Get it wrong and the film is merely frustrating. With ‘Aloft’, writer/director Claudia Llosa is clearly striving for something that falls into the former category. Unfortunately, her film is mostly just a plodding, empty bore.
Jennifer Connelly stars as a struggling single mother living in a cold nowhere town in the Arctic circle with one son who’s tragically ill and another who’s obsessed with his pet falcon. In an act of desperation, Connelly takes the ill boy to see a spiritual healer, when his brother’s falcon fatally flies loose and causes the healer’s lair to collapse. That odd little tragedy then kicks off a multilayered non-linear narrative.
In present day, we follow Cillian Murphy as the falcon brother grown up and Melanie Laurent as a French documentarian struggling to make a film about him. In the past, the faith healer’s guardian (William Shimell) starts to believe that Connelly might also have a magic touch and hopes to encourage her growth. Obviously, some secrets are held back in both eras that will only come to light once the two narratives merge together in some sort of grand emotional finale. At least, that’s what director Llosa hoped to accomplish.
Even once all the pieces of the puzzle are revealed, it’s hard to say exactly what the filmmaker was going for. The movie is certainly filled with symbols everywhere that seem to signify some grand ambitions to delve into the nature of spirituality, family and falconry (or something). However, none of them quite gel together. Clearly, Llosa wasn’t trying to craft a clockwork piece of narrative storytelling in which every moment has a distinct purpose, but her decision to play everything with a sense of opaque mystery is far more frustrating than thought provoking. It doesn’t help that the dominant tone of the film is one of abject misery. No one in the story is happy or fulfilled. Everyone is struggling and even the shaky soft focus cinematography is employed to suggest an emotional disconnect between the characters and their surroundings. It’s all quite alienating and emotionally exhausting without enough payoff or catharsis to justify the characters’ and audience’s suffering.
The cast is quite good, that must be said. Though all of them are essentially instructed to play the same miserable note, they pull the audience in. Connelly in particular is impossible to tear your eyes from as she burrows deep from one emotional bottom to the next. Murphy is equally strong as a destroyed little boy in a man’s body. The actors can’t be blamed for the film’s failings. They consistently commit to their half-baked roles with a raw intensity that forces viewers to care about the story even as they stumble through the confusing mess of misery-porn struggling to figure out what’s happening. Visually, the world of the film is evocative, serving up barren snow-covered landscapes as harsh and cold as the characters’ emotions. ‘Aloft’ is definitely a professional, accomplished piece of filmmaking, even if it serves up a rather empty viewing experience.
Some viewers may pull a great deal out of ‘Aloft’ for the same reasons those who dislike it will pull away. It’s the type of movie that invites open interpretation and allows a certain brand of miserable viewer to project all their pain and inclination for over-intellectualism onto it. God bless them for everything they find that I can’t see. Personally, I can’t shake the feeling that there’s nothing really here despite all the sad monologues, pained looks and lingering symbolism suggesting otherwise.