Claudia Llosa expands her preoccupations with mysticism and superstition in the modern world, working her way up from a medieval-minded Andean village in “Madeinusa” to faith healing at the frigid far reaches of the Arctic Circle with “Aloft.” But this time, instead of seeming plugged into some primitive native religion, the Peruvian helmer invents a rickety belief system as a pretext for tearing it all down, botching the telling of a more satisfying character-based story in the process. Replacing melancholy muse Magaly Solier with an equally forlorn-looking international cast led by a courageous Jennifer Connelly, Llosa stands to baffle more than her usual circle of arthouse adherents with this doleful downer, snapped up by Sony Classics before its Berlinale premiere.
Chief among Llosa’s new champions is exec producer Mark Johnson, whose involvement has allowed the helmer to operate on a far more expansive canvas than her Golden Bear-winning 2009 film “The Milk of Sorrow,” enlisting such vital collaborators as composer Michael Brook (“Into the Wild”) and cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc (“War Witch”), but hasn’t necessarily made her austere style any more accessible.
Eschewing traditional exposition, “Aloft” uses documentary techniques — namely, verite-style voyeurism amplified by disorienting jump cuts and restless handheld camerawork — to immerse audiences in its slightly off blue-collar world. We first spy Nana (Connelly) with her hand buried elbow deep in a pregnant sow, struggling to deliver a blocked piglet. From this startling image, the pic cuts to a decidedly unromantic tryst between Nana and a fellow farmer in the back room.
Life’s pleasures are few — and showers seemingly unheard of — for this grime-covered single mother, who has her hands full raising two kids, one a restless autodidact named Ivan (Zen McGrath), the other a terminally ill cherub whom everyone calls Gully (Winta McGrath). Starved for the context needed to navigate a world foreign enough to qualify as science fiction, viewers learn on the run that Nana and others in her scruffy rural community pin their limited hopes on a traveling miracle worker, subjecting themselves to a crude lottery system to see who will be lucky enough for a laying-on of hands.
Ivan is less than enthusiastic about tagging along for a trip to the weird wigwam-style structure where his brother might be “treated,” asking whether he can bring his pet falcon along for the trip. Yes, his falcon … because a unicorn might have disrupted the precarious pseudo-realistic parallel universe Llosa is so diligently constructing, positioned somewhere between poverty and post-apocalypse — where “Kes” meets “Children of Men.” Some confusing things happen, amid which the falcon goes rogue, the stick hut collapses and Nana discovers that she, too, has the healing touch.
“Aloft” belongs to an ambitious school of allegorical storytelling whose creators find it more interesting to raise open-ended questions than explain everything with pat answers. But until this point, the questions most people will be asking are: Who are these people, where are we, and what is going on? But after the incident with the falcon, Llosa is free to delve into the themes that really interest her, namely Nana’s subsequent decision to sever all ties to her previous life in order to work as a folk artist-cum-shaman.
To better understand the consequences of Nana’s choice, the film introduces a parallel narrative a quarter-century down the road, as Ivan (who’s bloomed into a morose-looking Cillian Murphy) has become a professional falconer, hacking — as the raptor-training process is called — young birds from the dumpy shack he shares with his wife (Oona Chaplin). Into his life arrives Jannia (Melanie Laurent, beautiful but barely intelligible), a guarded French woman purportedly investigating a documentary about falconry — one of the few indications of mass media in a world where Dark Age customs (like falconry) freely thrive again.
At the young lady’s insistence, Ivan agrees to travel to the far north, where his estranged mother has now dedicated herself to building strange stick sculptures and healing strangers full-time. Murphy, who hasn’t appeared so angst-ridden onscreen since “Breakfast on Pluto,” has the most baggage to work through over the course of the film, while Llosa plays her cards as a series of short, exasperatingly obtuse glimpses into Ivan’s past, until such time as the helmer deems it appropriate to reveal her full hand.
In the end, everything fits together rather ingeniously, though it’s clear that in orchestrating her needlessly complicated nonlinear narrative, Llosa has mistaken confusion for suspense. The story isn’t a proper mystery, sharing more in common with dreams than memory, but the helmer withholds key clues, including Ivan’s relation to Nana (which couldn’t really be written around), with the perversity of a cruel deity — one who not only establishes the religion of the land, but takes it upon herself to dismantle it as well.