Some movies practically dare you to give up.
“Aloft” is a beautifully shot, frustratingly vague and deeply ponderous mystery/spiritual journey about terminally unhappy souls.
The wonderful Jennifer Connelly is Nana, the mother of two boys: Gully (Winta McGrath), who is very ill and needs a miracle to survive, and his older brother Ivan (Zen McGrath), who resents all the attention Nana lavishes on Gully. He’s some brat, that Ivan.
On a typically wintry day, Nana brings her two boys and Ivan’s pet falcon to a faith-healing ceremony in the hopes a shaman known as “The Architect” (William Shimell) will be able to save her son. There’s an incident with the falcon, and this leads to Nana realizing SHE has magical faith-healing powers.
Next thing we know, Cillian Murphy is playing the adult Ivan, who now has a son of his own. So either the scenes with Ivan as a little boy were set about 20 years in the past, or the scenes with Ivan as an adult are 20 years in the future. It’s hard to tell because there’s not much in the way of fashion or cars or television shows to clarify the time periods. Whatever the era, there’s almost never a moment in this movie when anyone dares to crack a smile.
The adult Ivan tends to falcons and is usually either brooding or unpleasant. Sometimes he’s unpleasantly brooding. He is, however a loving and caring father; we’ll give him that. (Murphy conveys parental caring with lovely, subtle notes.)
Turns out Ivan hasn’t spoken to his mother in two decades. Nana flew the coop and became some sort of world-famous and yet reclusive faith healer, apparently more interested in helping strangers than in being a mother.
Melanie Laurent plays Jannia, a French documentarian who persuades Ivan to accompany her on a perilous trek to the far north, near the Arctic Circle, to find and interview Nana.
Writer-director Claudia Llosa continues to tell the parallel stories of Nana’s quest to find a cure for her young son, and the adult Ivan’s quest to find his estranged mother and confront her, leaving great mysteries somewhere in the middle: Why exactly did Nana leave, and what exactly has she been doing all this time? How do her healing powers work? What kept her from seeing Ivan all these years?
Yes, we know Nana’s become some sort of New Age, mystical Woman of the North — but most of the pressing questions set up in “Aloft” remain unanswered. (As for young Ivan having a pet falcon and grown-up Ivan taking care of falcons, it just seems like an excuse for Llosa to focus on these magnificent creatures. It feels overly artsy and hardly integral. Look! Flying metaphors!)
Connelly is a compelling actress playing an elusive character. (It doesn’t help that in the later scenes, her “Look, she’s much older!” makeup is less than convincing.) Murphy is stuck playing a deadly serious, mostly unlikable character. Laurent does a fine job as the journalist. The cinematography makes great use of the vast and icy Canadian locales.
All well and fine. We’re still mired in an obtuse, jagged tale that remains vague and unfocused until the very end.