By H.S. Bayer
Aloft (2014) is only the third feature from Lima born writer-director Claudia Llosa, but she is already recognized internationally as an up-and-coming Auteur. Aloft is her first English Language movie – the first two were made in Peru. Madeinusa (2006) premiered internationally at Rotterdam FF – winning the FIPRESCI Prize of International Critics – and at Sundance FF two days later – nominated for Grand Jury Prize. It then went on to garner several more awards in the fest circuit including the Best Latin American Film at the Málaga Film Festival (Spain) and Mar de Plata International Film Festival (Argentina). Her second outing, The Milk of Sorrow (2009 – La teta asustada) premiered at the Berlin FF, where it won both the FIPRESCI and the Golden Berlin Bear before landing multiple prizes from a twenty film festival roll-out, achieving Best Picture recognition at Guadalajara International FF (Mexico), L’etoile de Caux Festival (France), Gramado FF (Brazil), Bogota FF (Colombia), Femmes de Salé International Film Festival (Morocco), Festival Du Nouveau Cinéma (Montreal) and the Havana FF. Those successes led to a worldwide theatrical release and ultimately Peru’s first film nomination for Best Foreign Language Picture at the Academy Awards USA in 2010. Llosa’s short film Loxoro won the Teddy Award at the 2012 Berlin Film Festival. Claudia also served as a member of the Jury at the 2015 Berlin Film Festival.
In one of the first major deals of Berlin’s European Film Market, Sony Pictures Classics picked up all U.S. and Latin American rights to Aloft prior to its opening at the Berlin FF in February 2014, where it was a nominee for the Golden Bear. The film then played the Málaga FF (winning the Silver Biznaga for Best Cinematography), the Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival, Busan International FF (S. Korea) and the Haifa FF (Israel) – all in 2014. It premiered in the U.S. at Sundance in January 2015, went to the Belgrade Film Festival (Serbia) in March and the Skopje FF (Macedonia) in April. The film’s festival run ended with the NYC premiere at Tribeca FF this past April. Aloft opened commercially in NYC, on May 22 and will roll-out nationally in the weeks ahead.
Featuring an exceptional, intense yet nuanced performance, by Jennifer Connelly – A Beautiful Mind (2001) and very solid work from Cillian Murphy – Breakfast on Pluto (2005), Mélanie Laurent – Inglourious Basterds (2009) and William Shimell – Certified Copy (2010), Llosa’s Aloft allegorically weaves an existential tale of filial abandonment, mysticism, suffering, not so silent despair, deception and falconry – a story of three tortured characters, each chasing their own forms of personal salvation, relief and redemption, told through parallel threads that occur in an almost otherworldly frigid environment, shuttling between past and present and passing from the frozen rural tundra, on a harrowing and desperate icy journey, to the even more remote ice-encased Arctic.
Aloft is a difficult film both to follow (due to its dual narratives, one story path being a substitute for flashbacks) and to watch (because the first two acts are just so forlorn – ending sadly in horrible tragedy); but if one hangs in until the final act, the movie powerfully comes together – offering visually gorgeous imagery and plot threads which intricately intersect, as the characters’ humanity and underlying psychological and personal motivations reveal themselves – even the falcon soars.
Connelly plays a spouseless mother (Nana) of two young boys living a low-rent hard scrabbled existence in a nameless isolated wintry village somewhere way up north. A somber mood pervades the film from the start as her youngest child (Winta McGrath) suffers from an incurable condition. Simultaneously, Llosa counterbalances the grim tone with mystical and spiritual themes – the older boy (precociously performed by Zen McGrath) possesses a special affinity with falcons – already on his way to developing the pre-modern skill of falconry. A shadowy shamanistic character (William Shimell – the Architect) appears and asserts that Nana has the gift of the healing touch, a legitimately respected vocation in this strange mythical world we are now immersed in. Induced/seduced by the Architect, Nana, extremely reluctant at first, finally embraces the identity and life of a healer and leaves her unsatisfying tragic life and family behind to pursue her ‘destiny’, ultimately becoming a cult-like and celebrated medicinal guru, residing far away from inhabited civilization in the glacial cold – a place where suffering hopeless people make the arduous trek across the vast sheets of ice seeking miracles from her hands. Murphy appears in the second thread of the storyline as Nana’s now adult son Ivan, earning a subsistence living as a professional falcon breeder/handler, tortured by barely submerged anger and trapped in a troubled marriage. Into his frustrated morose existence, cheered only by his magical connection to the majestic birds, arrives the beautiful Jannia (Laurent), a French television journalist seeking to track down Nana in person and needing Ivan’s aid.
Symbolically, Ivan follows in his mother’s footsteps, originally resisting Jannia’s entreaties for assistance but finally agreeing to accompany her, taking leave of his wife (Oona Chaplin) and child – temporarily he claims. Nevertheless, these are two young strikingly beautiful people on an emotional and dangerous road trip… quite steamy sex inevitably follows, belying Ivan’s conscious intentions (as do many current behavioral therapists)… “The sins of the parents…” – actually an oft-diagnosed syndrome… and then a series of tense confrontations, pointing towards even deeper repressed emotions. So a hauntingly dreamlike pilgramige into the poetically immense whiteness ensues – alternating between sublime glowing light, colorless blandness, and nightmare – through the seemingly infinite ice mass to Nana’s Arctic enclave. Here is where Llosa’s unique universe of Aloft alights. Nicolas Bolduc’s cinematography captures the spectacular snow-capped vistas and ice encrusted landscape masterfully. Michael Brook’s score crescendos into a virtual snowscape symphony surrounding our voyagers as they sweep across the sea of ice. All in keeping with Llosa’s lyrically immersive visual style (a critical component of what several critics have labeled as her ‘Magical Realism’) and the proper dissonant backdrop for classically Freudian psychological conflicts to stridently play out – the airing of Ivan’s angst, the realization that Jannia conceals closely guarded secrets, the constant sounds of cracking ice… for Ivan more than a metaphor… an ethereal isolation from the madding crowds of the continents below (If they still survive).
At least one civilized human does and he rescues this messed up pair from Jannia’s stupid determination to cover the last leg of the frozen icecap on foot. Like some sort of Guardian Angel, or at least a well-resourced frontier setter he provides the desperately driven couple with something to drive – a well built and appointed harsh terrain vehicle. The ride taking them to Nana’s surreal snowbound quasi-supernatural tent compound allows us to observe Ivan’s mostly silent, sullen expressions as he contemplates his bitterness and unconscious hostility toward Nana… expressed out loud as disbelief and rejection of his mother’s superstitious Queendom – the mother who abandoned him, estranged for more than two decades. Guilt, betrayal, demons from the past… blame, (well meaning?) deception, faith, forgiveness in the present… the dual pronged story line merges into both one and three –as as it connects with our protagonists at Nana’s base like a tuning fork. Conciliation? Love? Revelation? Aloft – Yes. How uplifting, how curative? – Enigmatic.
Tribeca April 2015:
Tell me about your festival experiences at the big festivals, Berlin, Sundance, Tribeca…
CL: Well, we opened at the Berlin Festival, and Sundance and Tribeca so it’s been a nice run. I’m just happy to show the film in beautiful festivals. Feeling really supported by them, and I felt it was very well received. I’m so excited because now it’s going to be released, not only here, but in my country too. It was just released in Spain, so yeah, we’re in the run.
So, you opened in Berlin. Did you have a different feel from the audiences in Berlin vs. Sundance or Tribeca?
CL: Well it was a different film. When we finished the film, which we shot in February, we finished editing more or less in October/November, and we rushed to be able to get to Berlin. Berlin is such an important festival for me because of how much they supported The Milk of Sorrow, and it was so important for Peru and my career, for everything, that I really wanted to be there. When I saw the film with the audience for the first time, I thought I really needed to work more, you know, I thought I rushed it. So I went back home and I reedited some things. It’s kind of the same feel, you know. I think it’s more compact, more of what I wanted to see at the end. (Ed. Note – this final version runs 18 minutes less than the Berlin Cut) So I did that, and then we started again with Sundance, and with Tribeca. So it’s different. For me, as a director watching the film, I feel more comfortable now in this cut. The people’s reactions from South and Central America have been very, very nice. So it’s been an incredible journey actually.
Did you have packed houses in all three places?
CL: Yes, yes indeed, thank God. It’s very nice because, you know, it’s such an important place to watch a film. A film festival has this energy of discovering something that is so beautiful, and all these people are there just waiting for that to happen. They’re very generous. It’s a very nice way to start a journey for the film.
So you were on the jury at Berlin. What was that like?
CL: Yes, I was. That was one of the most amazing experiences of my life – just being able to be in a festival without a film surrounded by all these amazing people that you’ve admired for all your life. Suddenly you kind of like share with them. You can see the range of what the festival is proposing, and you get the whole scope of it. It was just one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. I felt blessed, and I learned a lot. I made wonderful friendships. Being able to support a film and to really help those films that we all thought were important, like we could push them, and give them the support that they received and really deserve was important to me.
So, you shot on the Arri Alexa and it looked really good. Did you have some special lenses too?
CL: Yes, Nicola, (Nicolas Bolduc – the DP) who we worked together with on this one, is amazing. We thought about the look, and we wanted Anamorphic from the very beginning, and he suggested these lenses that are very beautiful, very nice. They were vintage Cooke. They feel like vintage, but they’re not really vintage, they’re just called that. They are very gentle, and they have this beautiful kind of aura, you know, that I thought really suited the film.
You’ve created this world and the characters residing there in this frigid remote locale – one location that looks almost like Northwest Canada that’s half ice covered most of the year – the other an icecap almost like the North Pole, but it’s not necessarily really Canada OR the Arctic Circle. The people who live there seem very elemental, almost pre-modern, a kind of frontier mentality with faith in healers, medicine men…
CL: For me, nature and being surrounded by nature is kind of a reminder of how we are, and how we react. Definitely, it’s obvious that the ambience that you are surrounded by is going to affect you, right? So like if you are living in a place with extreme weather conditions, you’re going to be affected by that.
Elaborating in depth on the nature of the “world” in Aloft, to Casey Cipriani of Indiewire on May 21, shortly before I posted this piece, Llosa characterized the film’s mise-en-scène…
CL: … in a way everything about the film is something that is primal and archaic. It’s like going back to our roots and how we’re trying so much to domesticate. For instance, the falcon, it’s this beautiful and strange creature. It’s so beautiful but so aggressive at the same time. An idea of how we’re always trying to domesticate and control that beauty. And how is it even possible for Ivan to get and accept that aggressiveness and beauty in that creature, and not in other human beings, or the person that he loves. It’s like talking about accepting that dichotomy in life. It’s kind of accepting our primal roots, our primitive side. Sometimes when we live in a big city, near to institutions, we feel secure. But what happens when that doesn’t work, what happens when that doesn’t respond. Where do we go, where do we perch? That’s the sort of the separation that Nana feels, from the very beginning of the film, and how she’s feeling that she’s drowning, and the only thing that she has is nature, is nothingness, is her breathing, and her strength. It’s going back to sort of confronting the audience with that feeling—what happens when you don’t have those buildings, these surroundings, these structures? That is actually the real thing, this is just fantasy. So the whole film is trying to understand the mechanisms that we use in order to hold onto life. If it’s faith, what is it that we need in order to create a sense of security? That’s why the whole ambience of the film supports that feeling.
Yet your main character, played by Jennifer Connelly, seems in some ways irresponsible to her children. She seemed to have that kind of character, yet she’s a healer. Like there are doctors here in America who are great doctors, but not really such nice people all the time. How did you deal with that?
CL: Jennifer’s character is very interesting for me because at the end, she’s a mother desperate to really help and protect. She’s such a loving mother in a way, you know, but she’s kind of restrained. She doesn’t know how to express that love, but you don’t doubt that she has a great depth of feeling. Maybe she doesn’t know how to let it out of her body. That’s the kind of difficulty she’s has. For me what is interesting about this character is that you don’t doubt that she loved these kids, but she’s making this very complicated, complex decision that will affect the paradigm of her life and her kid’s life forever. And yet she does it, she makes her choices. Of course, they are unusual, you know, but for me, what I’m trying to say about this is that sometimes we try so hard to separate ourselves from… concepts. Life has these tectonic concepts. For instance, you have this presence of this falcon. For me, it’s kind of a reminder of the human condition in the way this creature is so beautiful, so amazing, so powerful and so fragile, yet at the same time so aggressive. You don’t know how to connect, but Ivan is able to create a very close relationship with him. What I’m trying to say is, for me, Nana is just a mother like other mothers – she’s trying her best, you know. She has to make some very difficult choices, and I thought they were interesting. It raised so many questions about motherhood.
Kind of a communal mother…
CL: Yeah. What is the better mother? The mother of one or the mother of all? It’s very complicated. I think she raises many intriguing questions… to understand a very complex human being, without trying to justify or even be judgmental with them.
Do you have to believe in healing for it to work?
CL: I don’t believe in healing, like healers. I believe that what has always been something that fascinates me and something that I’ve always been wondering: Are we able to heal wounds? Are we going to be able to pass a phase of something that has happened to us as a country, as a human being, as a person, as a family? Are we really able to just heal ourselves? What are the mechanisms to do that? Is hope a kind way to find a new sense of security? Or is it only something to bring you back to this idea that you need to accept – that we are fragile? That need of control that we usually have, as human beings, of possession – it’s probably causing all these problems too. So I think that the healer, in so many ways, raises all these questions. I don’t mean just physical healing, but also mental healing.
What do you think Freud, the first person to psychoanalyze himself and heal his own neurosis would say about the film if he saw it in Berlin… if he were still alive?
CL: (laughs) I don’t know. I would love to talk to him about it. I don’t know what he would say, but it would be nice to have him in the theatre though.
The unconscious part of it? Traumatic childhood experiences?
CL: I’m been very interested in psychoanalysis for a long time already. It’s been part of my process of researching and it’s always there. There’s like a transmission of an affection that occurs unconsciously in a film too. What opens and what creates an energy for me that’s not verbal, not tangible, that is also very interesting to explore. But I could write a book about it. It’s too hard to explain. I need that connection when I write. It’s very conceptual. It’s very intuitive also, but I need to go very deep. In a way, it’s part of my process.
What do you think about the Hollywood approach to flashbacks? In this case, you used the parallel story. I mean the traditional flashbacks.
CL: I don’t mind that sort of thing. For me, if it suits the story and they’re well done, it can work. But I don’t believe in a certain way to tell a story just because it works. I believe in trying new things, and trying new ways, and sometimes you need to go back. For me, it’s the way to do it, whether it’s beautiful or not.
I think your way is immediate, more cinematic.
CL: I just didn’t like it to be so clear. For me, time is not something that is past and present. Everything is melting. So you cannot actually define time with a different coloring or feeling, it has to have the same impact, you know. And that’s why there are these moments where you’re just a little bit lost. You don’t know if you’re in the past or you’re in the present, and that’s all part of the idea of creating time as something that is always complex, you cannot separate it, it’s like a prism. Like you can turn it around and see it. You can remember something… it should all feel like the present.
CREDITS (Partial lists positions & individual’s other projects):
Jennifer Connelly – Requiem for a Dream (2000), Pollack (2000), Hulk (2003), Blood Diamond (2006), He’s Just Not That Into You (2009), Noah (2014)
Cillian Murphy – 28 Days Later (2002), Batman Begins (2005), Red Eye (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), Inception (2010), The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Mélanie Laurent – Beginners (2010), Requiem for a Killer (2011), Night Train to Lisbon (2013), Now You See Me (2013), Enemy (2013)
William Shimell – Amour (2012), Hercules (2005- Opera/TV Movie) Shimell is more known as a world-renowned operatic baritone.
Oona Chaplin – Quantum of Solace (2008), The Devil’s Double (2011), Game of Thrones (2012-13 TV series), What If (2013)
Ian Tracey – Da Vinci’s Inquest (1998-2005 TV series), Insomnia (2002), Hell on Wheels (2011 TV series), Man of Steel (2013), Bates Motel (2013-14 TV series)
Peter McRobbie – Deconstructing Harry (1997), Spider-Man 2 (2004), Law and Order (1991-2009, Law and Order: Special Victim’s Unit – 2003-2012 TV series’), Lincoln (2012), Boardwalk Empire (2010-13 TV Series), Daredevil (2015 TV Series)
Andy Murray – Upside Out (2006), Just Another Day (2007 Short Film), The Knick (2014 TV Series – 2 episodes)
Zen McGrath – Dig (2015)
Winta McGrath – Younger brother of actors Gulliver McGrath and Zen McGrath
Producers: The three lead producers were Jose Maria Morales, Ibon Cormenzana and Mark Johnson.
Jose Maria Morales founded Wanda Films in 1992 and Wanda Vision in 1997. Both companies specialize in production and distribution of independent films, primarily from Europe and Latin America. A partial list of films he has produced includes:
Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea – directed by Marion Hänsel (1996), Profundo Carmesí directed by Arturo Ripstein (1996), The Quarry directed by Marion Hänsel (1997), El Evangelio de las Maravillas directed by Arturo Ripstein (1997), Inquietude directed by Manoel de Oliveira (1997), La Lettre directed by Manoel de Oliveira (1998), Palabra y Utopia directed by Manoel de Oliveira (1999), Así es la vida directed by Arturo Ripstein (1999), La Perdición de los hombres directed by Arturo Ripstein (2000), Midwinter’s Night Dream directed by Goran Paskaljevic (2003), The Optimist directed by Goran Paskaljevic (2006), Arcadia directed by Costa Gavras (2005), La Gran Final directed by Gerardo Olivares (2006), Madeinusa directed by Claudia Llosa (2006), 14 Kilómetros directed by Gerardo Olivares (2007), The Milk of Sorrow directed by Claudia Llosa (2009), Entre lobos directed by Gerardo Olivares (2010), Las Razones del Corazon directed by Arturo Ripstein (2011), Guadalquivir directed by Joaquín Gutierrez Acha (shooting), El Faro de las Orcas directed by Gerardo Olivares (in preproduction).
Ibon Cormenzan is the chairman of Arcadia Motion Pictures, which produces high quality feature films with upcoming European creative talent, top cast and international potential. In 2000, supported by a group of investors, Ibon founded the production company Infinity Films, which focused on the development and production of his own material, which led to his first feature film, Jaizkibel, which he wrote, directed and produced. The film won several accolades at national and international film festivals, including Best Debut Film at the Basque Cinema Awards. In 2004, Ibon and his partner, Angel Durandez, expanded Infinity Films into Arcadia Motion Pictures, and began structuring new private sources of funding, both national and international, for its projects. In 2005, he produced Eugenio Mira’s The Birthday, which won an award at the Sitges Film Festival. In 2007, Ibon completed his second film, The Totenwackers, starring Geraldine Chaplin. Arcadia Motion Pictures has produced Jackboots on Whitehall, an animated movie directed by the McHenry brothers (Best Animated Feature Film at Sitges Film Festival 2010), Blackthorn (2011), directed by Mateo Gil and starring Eduardo Noriega, Sam Shepard and Stephen Rea, that premiered at Tribeca Film Festival and won 4 Goya Awards in Spain in 2012, No Rest For The Wicked (2011) which premiered at the official selection of San Sebastian Film Festival, and won 6 Goya Awards, including Best Spanish Film. The company’s more recent films include Blancanieves, by Pablo Berger, which represented Spain as Foreign Language film for the 2013 Oscars, and won 10 Goya Awards, including Best Spanish Film. He is also a co producer with Mark Johnson on the still untitled next feature directed by Claudia Llosa, currently in postproduction.
Executive Producer Mark Johnson won the Best Picture Academy Award for Barry Levinson’s 1988 Rain Man. His recent slate of motion pictures includes The Chronicles of Narnia franchise as well as Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2010), written and co-produced by Guillermo del Toro and starring Katie Holmes and Guy Pearce. Other notable credits among the dozens of films he has produced include Nick Cassavetes’ drama My Sister’s Keeper (2009), starring Cameron Diaz, Lance Hammer’s Sundance award-winning film Ballast (2008); the Tim Allen and Sigourney Weaver sci-fi comedy Galaxy Quest (in development) directed by Dean Parisot; The Rookie (2002) directed by John Lee Hancock; Mike Newell’s gangster drama Donnie Brasco (1997) and Clint Eastwood’s A Perfect World (1993). Johnson produced all of writer-director Barry Levinson’s films from 1982-1994; in addition to Rain Man, their diverse slate of acclaimed features includes Good Morning Vietnam (1987), The Natural (1984), Tin Men (1987), Toys (1992), Young Sherlock Holmes (1985), Avalon (1990), Diner (1982), and Bugsy (1991), nominated for ten Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director. Bugsy also earned a Golden Globe Award for Best Picture. On the television side, he was the executive producer of the Emmy-nominated AMC drama Breaking Bad (2008-2013), and the Sundance Channel’s first scripted series, Rectify, created by Ray McKinnon, which premiered in April 2015 to wide acclaim. Most recently, Johnson serves as executive producer for the AMC series Halt and Catch Fire (2015).
Additional Producers: Marina Fuentes Arredonda, associate producer; Rhonda Baker, line producer; Angel Durandez, associate producer; Ignazi Estape, executive producer; Sandra Hermida, executive producer/line producer; Phyllis Laing, producer; Miguel Morales, executive producer; Ignacio Salazar-Simpson, associate producer; Sandra Tapia, delegate producer; Jerome Vidal, executive producer.
Production: (Spain-Canada-France) A Sony Pictures Classics (in U.S./Latin America) release of a Wanda Vision, Arcadia Motion Pictures, Buffalo Gal Pictures production in co-production with Manitoba Films, Noodles Prod., with the participation of TVE, Canal Plus, TVC, with the support of ICAA, IEC, Telefilm Canada, Manitobal Film & Music, NCN, Institut Francais. Executive producer, Mark Johnson
Music: Michael Brook – Affliction (1997), Charlotte Sometimes (2002) An Inconvenient Truth (2006), Into the Wild (2007), The Fighter (2010), Cesar Chavez (2014)
Sound Design: Fabiola Ordoyo – The Machinist (2004, Sound Editor),The Totenwackers (2007), The Milk of Sorrow (2009), Blackthorn (2011)
Cinematography: Nicolas Bolduc – War Witch (2012), Enemy (2013)
Film Editing: Guillermo de la Cal – The Machinist (1st Assistant editor), The Orphanage (2007, 1st ass. ed.), Sleep Tight (2011, Editor), Project Lazarus (2016)
Production Design: Eugenio Caballero – Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), Resident Evil: Extinction (2007), The Limits of Control (2009), The Runaways (2010), The Impossible (2012)
In the wake of the recent ACLU Petition on Gender Bias in Directing, I have reprinted the following, from the previously mentioned Indiewire interview, in which Aloft star Jennifer Connelly and director Claudia Llosa discussed the state of women in the industry.
JC: I don’t think that we’ve reached gender parity yet. You can see in the statistics of violence against women, inequality of pay between men and women. We’ve come a long way… I think there are always exceptions to the rule. But by and large, it feels that we still haven’t achieved total equality in our culture. I think they’re inseparable, (the film industry) it’s not a separate thing. It’s sort of an example of the way our culture works. It is that way in the movie industry and in our culture. I don’t think it’s even something that’s only in our industry.
CL: I’ve never seen gender as a guarantee or as a source of difference. I don’t see it like that. For me, it’s something that defines you, of course, but it’s so many other things. In terms of other opportunities, I think that balance that we are always trying to achieve is only going to happen if we accept the balance in ourselves. If we really believe, we can balance ourselves. I do believe that. Believing in that balance makes the difference. Do I make sense? I’ve never heard someone asking a guy, like a director, how do you deal with being a father and a director, you know? If we are asking that question to a female director, we are in a way implying that there’s no possible balance. And that’s insane. You can definitely have a balance. Just keeping in this sort of mantra, for me, is perpetuating the problem. I think we have to change the perspective of things.