When “Aloft” was shown at the Berlin International Film Festival last year, it was, apparently, a very different movie. Or at least a longer movie. The version hitting U.S. theaters is almost 20 minutes shorter than the film’s original, nearly two-hour length. And certain structural details of the tale, which jumps back and forth between two timelines, have clearly been re-jiggered, based on Variety’s 18-month-old description of the plot.
Whether this new version is any better — or worse — is unclear.
The English-language debut of Peruvian filmmaker Claudia Llosa, whose 2009 film “The Milk of Sorrow” was nominated for an Academy Award, “Aloft” is, for starters, visually gorgeous, if you like the stark, bleak beauty of the Arctic Circle. And the acting by Jennifer Connelly, who plays the main character, Nana, is superb. The story, however, which concerns Nana's estrangement from her adult son Ivan (Cillian Murphy), and the slow, striptease-like revelation of its origins, leaves a lot to be desired.
I’m not even talking about the truncated ending — it feels as though a good 10 minutes of the missing footage may have been lopped from the movie’s final scene — in which Ivan and Nana confront each other in the frozen North.
I’m used to ambiguity in art house fare such as this; closure is something I don’t even expect anymore.
But it’s the rest of the story that’s lacking.
“Aloft” opens during a kind of flashback prologue, as Nana is shown taking her two young sons, Ivan and Gully (real-life brothers Zen and Winta McGrath), to a faith healer (William Shimell). Known as the Architect, on account of the oversize, basket-like edifices that he builds out of sticks in the wilderness, and in which he conducts his healing “acts,” the man is much sought after, judging by the large crowd of believers that Nana, Ivan and Gully — who has a deadly tumor — find themselves in.
It isn’t spoiling too much to say that, after that visit, Nana discovers that she may also have healing powers, and that these powers, indirectly, lead to the incident that drives a wedge between her and her elder son. Two scenes — Nana and Ivan’s leave-taking, when he’s still a little boy, and their reunion, many years later — are the finest moments in the film, with the kind of heartbreaking acting that you would expect from a film of this pedigree.
But in between these high points there are a lot of lows. The film wastes far too much time, for instance, on the grown Ivan, a mopey and haunted figure who raises falcons (for no apparent reason other than it seems like a poetic and romantic thing to do). There are lots of shots of soaring birds, lending the film its title. And when Ivan sets out to find his mother, under the urging of a documentarian (Mélanie Laurent) who says she is making a film about Nana, he carries a falcon with him on his back, in a wooden crate.
I have no idea why, and I’m pretty sure you won’t, either.
I’m not really interested in why, and neither is the film. But there is something else that “Aloft” fails to do that is much worse than its affectation of vagueness. Except for those two searingly emotional — if evanescent — scenes, there is no real feeling to any of it. The characters in “Aloft” seem to float over their strong passions, like birds riding on columns of air, without ever alighting. I kept waiting for the sharp sting of a talon to take hold of my heart, but it never came.
R. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains sex, crude language and children in jeopardy. 95 minutes.