For the beast of the field, the pain of childbirth ends at birth. For the human mother, birth is only the beginning of a pain that has no end. Claudia Llosa’s third feature is perhaps the most uncompromising tale of motherhood since Medea. Jennifer Connelly, whose last performance I favored was the insect magnet of Dario Argento’s “Phenomenon,” she comes through with a brave performance as Nana Kunning, a mother who abandons her elder son to pursue a career as a healer after her incurably sick younger son drowns in a frozen lake. I say brave because Connelly is heedless of her limitations as an actress and, in over-reaching herself, winds up in an emotional wind tunnel that sucks her dry.
Every male character introduced in the opening scenes is a sadistic brute, and Nana is their whipping girl. She goes through life with her visor down, deflecting the pointed humiliations with lofty deference. r Her husband and father-in-law blame her for the illness of her child, and she is long past putting up an argument. Her healthy son hates her for the favoritism she shows his brother, and feels himself a non-entity in her eyes. The result of this is that everything he does brings disaster.
Llosa is the niece of Peru’s most celebrated author, Mario Vargas Llosa. Her first film, “madeinusa,” was an arthouse favorite, and her second, “The Milk of Sorrow,” received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film. Both were excellent studies of the superstitions of Andean people, and were unfairly criticized in Peru for what some hypocrites perceived as racist characterizations of Peru’s indigenous culture. The truth is that both Llosa and her uncle are two of the few Peruvian intellectuals who give a damn about the Andeans.
The writer/director finds a challenging alternative to the topography of the Andes in Manitoba’s frozen lakes. With the help of Canadian cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc, she creates an environment as unforgiving as her characters. Bolduc is not so effective with his foregrounds. His camera swoops so closely to the actors that it’s a wonder it doesn’t plow their faces.
Towards the end, “Aloft” ascends into the negligible ether of new age philosophizing, as Nana delivers an iffy monologue on how she came to terms with the death of her son. There is wisdom here, but it is the frightening wisdom of crones. We leave the shivery fields of ice with the disheartening suspicion that women, especially mothers, are every bit as monstrous as the sons, husbands, fathers-in law, and impetuous strangers who make a misery of their lives.