• Jennifer Connelly (left) in Aloft

Though it’s in English and stars internationally celebrated actors Jennifer Connelly, Cillian Murphy, and Mélanie Laurent, Claudia Llosa’s Aloft—which plays at the River East 21 for another two nights—feels remarkably similar to the writer-director’s previous features, Madeinusa (2006) and The Milk of Sorrow (2009), which were made in Peru with nonprofessional casts. In Aloft, a single mother (Connelly) seeks out a nomadic faith healer in hopes of curing her terminally ill son and, in the process, discovers she possesses magic healing powers herself. Llosa presents the faith-healing business matter-of-factly, but adopts a wonder-struck perspective toward the film’s settings, which comprise some rural communities in northwestern Canada and a makeshift settlement around the Arctic Circle. The fantastical elements seem to emerge naturally from these locations, as in Llosa’s other films or in much South American magic realist literature. This sort of thing is rare in English-language movies, and I’m impressed that Llosa managed to pull it off. Rather than “going Hollywood,” she made what’s effectively a Peruvian movie in North America—something that few, if any, other filmmakers have done.

I should admit that most of what I know about Peru comes from the dozen or so Peruvian features I’ve seen. (By the same token, how wonderful it is that movies allow us to learn about foreign cultures in such an appealing way.) Yet one thing I’ve come to grasp is that Peruvian culture is divided between a small, modernized population and a larger, indigenous one. Indeed 45 percent of the population identifies as Native American (according to a 2013 survey conducted by the CIA), and millions of Peruvians live in rustic communities in such uninviting regions as jungles and Andean mountain ranges. The magic realist vibe of much Peruvian cinema I’ve seen suggests that folkloric traditions have influenced the culture at large, at least with regards to popular storytelling, and the way Peruvian filmmakers depict location as a determining influence on individual character shows a sensitivity to environment that’s more than simply aesthetic. “This land imprisons us,” reads a title card at the start of Madeinusa, words that could have easily appeared in any other Peruvian movie I know.

Madeinusa takes place in a fictional mountain community where all laws are suspended over Easter weekend. The Milk of Sorrow, largely shot in a real-life shantytown on the rocky outskirts of Lima, focuses on a young woman who inherited her mother’s phobias through her breast milk. I don’t know if the folk traditions these movies invoke are based on actual legends or if Llosa invented them, but I’m not sure if it matters either way. These films conjure a world where established logic changes as naturally and unpredictably as weather—people are unable to control these shifts, having to make do with whatever happens. I detect a historical subtext to these fables. Starting in 1980, Peru has been ravaged by periods of civil war. The total number of casualties has been estimated at around 70,000, with rural areas suffering the worst. I presume that, for many Peruvians, the social breakdown depicted by Madeinusa doesn’t seem all that metaphorical.

  • The Milk of Sorrow

The heroine of Milk of Sorrow, a recent transplant from an indigenous community, is a product of the national terror, her mother having been raped by a revolutionary soldier. The film shows her attempt to acclimate to life in Lima, albeit to little success—her inherited fear of strangers is simply too powerful for her to live comfortably in a city. Llosa conveys the young woman’s terror much like she conveys the presence of spiritual forces in her other films, regularly presenting the action in extreme close-up that renders mysterious the world beyond the characters’ immediate reach. This strategy makes Llosa’s long-shots especially powerful. Her films’ locations would be striking regardless, but they seem overwhelming in contrast to the intimacy of the drama.

So it goes in Aloft, which does for Canada’s snowy tundras what Llosa’s other films do for the Andes. Again, the characters are working through unspeakable suffering. For most of the time she’s onscreen Connelly’s character is wrestling with the knowledge that her school-age son will most likely die young. In flash-forwards set 20 years later, Murphy plays Connelly’s other son, who’s still angry at his mother for abandoning him as a boy to become a wandering healer. His journey to meet her at the Arctic Circle (a mission spearheaded by an investigative journalist played by Laurent) feels like something out of a folktale—his story feels increasingly out of time the further he gets from modern society. Adding to the folkloric vibe, Murphy goes everywhere with a pet falcon that serves as a sort of spirit animal.

Some critics (like A.O. Scott in the New York Times) read Murphy’s relationship to his falcon as a heavy-handed metaphor, but I see it as just one facet of the complex relationship between people and nature that’s central to Llosa’s cinema. Many of her authorial choices reflect this “earth spirit” aesthetic, not least her direction of actors. Even in extreme close-up, the people in Llosa’s films never overwhelm their environments—they project a certain humility that suggests the environments are controlling them. One thing I find refreshing about Aloft is how it defamiliarizes its famous performers, who aren’t called on to play characters so much as products of the wintry settings. Connelly comes off especially well, tapping into a maternal warmth that seems to melt whatever obstacles come before her.