Nº2 – JULY 2019
The National Auteur “Goes World”: Claudia Llosa and the Critical Responses to Aloft/No llores, vuela
Jeffrey Middents, American University
Set in upper British Columbia and Nunavut, Claudia Llosa’s Aloft (2014) follows two connected moments within a family’s storyline: in search of a mystical cure for her terminally ill younger son, a mother discovers she has healing powers herself – but not before her older son causes an accident that kills his brother; 20 years later and now estranged, the well-established healer and her adult son confront each another when a French journalist comes looking for her help. The film prominently shows a cold, white and barren landscape, emphasizing a stark isolation that characterizes the “fringe” elements that make up both the characters and story. Although it debuted like its predecessor at the Berlin Film Festival in 2014, Aloft was largely seen as a critical (and commercial) failure. Its Metacritic score rests at a dismal 34; its Rotten Tomato Freshness score is at a horrifying 16%, raising only to 24 when you only account for the “top critics.” The reviews are scathing, using language such as “unrealistic, “contrived” and –my favorite, and one you should remember – “ponderous New Age mumbo-jumbo masquerading as philosophical wisdom.” Nearly all these critical responses reference Llosa’s earlier work, and particularly her success with The Milk of Sorrow(La teta asustada, 2009). Her status as an award-winning filmmaker, one that the very trailer for Aloft trumpets in an attempt at marketing, also hampers reception to the film: while the story and aesthetic indeed seem to work within the context of Llosa’s oeuvre, instead of Magaly Solier – a young indigenous woman, completely unknown when Madeinusa was released in 2006 – it was movie-star Jennifer Connolly espousing some of the same perspectives – and in a snow-laden Canadian setting instead of in the Andes.
Llosa’s concepts from the first two films simply did not translate well when brought into an English-speaking context – and by cinematic standards, of course, by “English” I also mean by “world” standards, since English is largely the lingua franca of transnational cinematic practice. She is hardly the first director whose work has been received poorly when brought into English: for example, Wong Kar-wai’s My Blueberry Nights (2007). Instead of “going native,” as it were, Aloft can be seen as an example of what happens when a director who has achieved legitimacy as a regionally identified auteur “goes world.” Such directors may not have altered much from their original aesthetic styles and choices – but because the location and language changes, the reception to the film skews to the negative. To put it another way, the very elements that made The Milk of Sorrow an international success on the film festival circuit – and turned both international and Peruvian attention to Claudia Llosa herself as the most significant contemporary Peruvian auteur – were now found to be lacking when transposed visually and geographically to English-language Canada. This idea is furthered when looking at criticism outside the English language: Peruvian and Spanish film critics also referenced her earlier work, but responded positively to No llores, vuela (literally, Don’t Cry, Fly, the original title of the film and how it was released in Spanish): “The result,” gushed Peruvian Juan Jose Beteta, “is a pure and sober cinematic distillation that places [Aloft] at the same excellent level as [Llosa’s] earlier films.”
I wanted to put these two strains of criticism – the English vs. the Spanish – against one another as both explore Claudia Llosa as a Peruvian, as an auteur and as both those concepts at once; since the critics had done so, I also wanted to allow her earlier work to visually dialogue with the one considered a failure. There are racist, sexist and regionalist implications within these critiques: why is allegorical mysticism considered natural in Peru, but “mumbo jumbo” when it comes out of the mouth of Jennifer Connolly in Canada? My original idea was to simply recut the studio trailer for the film, employing the textual imbalances of the statements in both languages against the film itself – but there was something about the rhetorical strategies of these critiques that demanded literally more breathing room to make such positions. Whereas in earlier videographic essays I have largely eschewed voice-over narration, here I have employed others to stand in for the variety of voices. I felt it was important to hear these different perspectives, reflected in different languages, clashing against one another.