In the opening scenes of the brooding Aloft, a young boy carrying a falcon rushes along with his mom (Jennifer Connelly) across a bleak, frozen stretch of road in the Arctic, on their way to see a mysterious faith healer. We don’t know what era we’re in, or who exactly these people are. Director Claudia Llosa doesn’t like to answer a lot of questions about her characters — which can be maddening, especially when they’re doing portentous, symbolic things like walking around with falcons and waiting in line to see Arctic faith healers.
The story is certainly strange. Connelly's character Nana is a single, working-class mother desperately seeking a solution for her youngest child Gully (Winta McGrath), who suffers from a brain tumor, while also dealing with her precocious, restless older son Ivan (Zen McGrath). When she drags her kids to that aforementioned faith healer (William Shimell), who builds little houses out of twigs as part of his ritual, Nana discovers purely by chance that she may be the one with the healing powers. What are the odds, right?
Intercut with this is the present-day story of a documentary filmmaker, Jannia (Mélanie Laurent), who tracks down the grown-up Ivan (Cillian Murphy). He lives an isolated life and is estranged from his mother, who has since become a legendary faith healer. Llosa structures her film like a mystery of sorts: What happened between Ivan and his mother to drive them apart? But that’s not much of a mystery, and we can probably guess the answer.
So here’s a nutty story delivered in decidedly non-nutty, straight-faced — some might say humorless — fashion. This is usually a problem. Indeed, for many viewers, it was: Aloft recently arrived with much anticipation on the festival circuit, after Llosa had been Oscar nominated for 2009’s similarly oddball The Milk of Sorrow, and it’s been met mostly with befuddlement and boredom. But I found myself often enraptured by this sad little story. Its weird narrative of faith healing serves as an intriguing diversion from the real matter at hand — the notion that grace lies in the search for help, rather than the finding of it. I don’t think we actually see anybody get better in this movie. But we do see them strive to do so.
To that end, Llosa has a real feel for the immediacy of her moments. She loves to film people walking, running, stumbling, and she loves to capture stolen glances, turned shoulders, brief little gestures that sometimes tell us all we need to know. The verité rush of her filmmaking counteracts the overall strangeness of her tale. Or rather, it tells us where to look. The healing, the mystery – those are irrelevant. Aloft is ultimately a movie about our need to keep moving and searching. And at times, it’s quite a lovely one.