The very unwelcoming wasteland of wind, ice and snow we see at the beginning of Claudia Llosa’s enigmatic Aloft speaks eloquently about silence. Nature is frightening because it is mute. It offers no mitigating explanations for its ferocity. And such apparent disinterest can seem awful, especially to a human race that tends to take things personally.
Silence can also be bred out of profound experience. Soldiers who have been in war often decline to speak of it, because to do so would diminish the things they saw. To try to reconcile language to the losses of battle would show disrespect for the experience, as well as for the dead. And the soldier’s silence disturbs the rest of us, precisely because what lies behind it is unspeakable.
It is a slightly different kind of quietude we find in “Aloft,” a spiritually elevated, visually thrilling movie not about war but about love, albeit love that sometimes feels like combat. It involves a woman, Nana (Jennifer Connelly), who seems blessed with a gift of healing; her son, Ivan (Cillian Murphy), who lives with tremendous guilt as well as resentment over his mother’s having left him; and a journalist (Mélanie Laurant), who manipulates Ivan to find his mother, who has become over the years a reclusive, saint-like celebrity. It is a movie of mysteries and moods, sweeping, soaring imagery and—despite having a Peruvian director, a principally American cast and Canadian locations (the film was shot in Manitoba)—a European sensibility. Why European? Because it feels no need to hold the viewer’s hand and/or explain itself too much. To do so would show disrespect for its audience.
The shall-we-say penurious policy regarding detail exercised by Ms. Llosa—who was nominated for an Oscar in 2010 for “The Milk of Sorrows”—extends to the world surrounding the story. It is not entirely clear where we are when the story settles in, though it feels a bit like a post-apocalyptic sci-fi setting, with a mob of citizens awaiting. But awaiting what? Food? Delousing? No, they are assembled to see someone called the Architect (William Shimell), a shamanesque character who has erected a temple out of old tree branches and dried shrubbery, shaped like a Quonset hut, into which the faithful and desperate await entry and where they, maybe, find healing. They include the woman who will later be known as Nana; her elder son, Ivan (Zen McGrath); and his younger brother, Gully (Winta McGrath), who has what seems to be an inoperable brain tumor. (Like much in the film, the illness is never quite spelled out.) There is a lottery involved, which is won by another child, Timothy, and a moment of havoc caused by Ivan’s trained falcon, which flies into the hut and then out through the roof, leaving brush and chaos in its wake.
That Ivan will grow up to keep and train raptors adds to the savagery of the universe Llosa is creating. But Nana’s touching of the half-blind Timothy, and his subsequent improvement, implies something else is going on in that universe, something divine or at least divinely inspired. No one wants to talk about it directly, because to do so—as Nana (Connelly operating under some rather unconvincing old-age makeup) articulates late in the film—would be both egotistical and a betrayal.
Llosa moves very gracefully back and forth between the life of Nana and her children in their youth, and Ivan, his wife and child and their intruder, Jannia (Laurant), who dupes Ivan into traveling across a frozen north to find his reclusive mother. There are no easy answers to the cosmic question the director poses, but among the lingering pictures she creates is one of that silent falcon, taking his intellectually unencumbered flight through the sky and over a sometimes envious race, tied to its spiritual lodestones.
“Aloft” isn’t quite how one would describe the characters in Sunshine Superman, a generally splendid documentary by Marah Strauch about people throwing themselves off cliffs. Literally. It employs its own brand of selective silence about the life of its subject, Carl Boenish, who in the late 1970s invented BASE jumping and was a man one would assume had a death wish until he convinces you he does not. Still, he is a bit like the guy who ate the first oyster: Who knew it wouldn’t kill you? Who knew that parachuting off BASE places (Buildings, Antennae, Spans and Earth, a k a cliffs), was not going to kill you, too?
What Strauch has at her disposal, and which she uses expertly, is Boenish’s own film archive. Like “Senna,” another great sports documentary, “Sunshine Superman” is defined by its wealth of intimate footage, although in this case it is also largely first-person. Boenish was besotted by cinema. If a jump was worth doing, it was worth filming, and if it wasn’t on film, it may as well not have happened.
With his wife, Jean Boenish, his partner in crime—much of what they did was, in fact, above the law (pun intended)—Boenish created a sport, and a new film aesthetic. He had worked as both an electrical engineer and a cinematographer before he started leaping, and he was an Edison-like innovator who conjured up ways to make impossible shots. For a plunge at El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, Boenish welded together a ladder-like camera mount that was hung from the cliff shelf, over the abyss, with a bicycle seat on its end. From that perch, Boenish takes shots of his friends jumping straight down. During an illicit jump from the Crocker Bank building in downtown Los Angeles, Boenish’s camera follows two jumpers all the way to the street and into a cab, where they make their escape from police.
If things went wrong, Boenish believed, it was because the BASE jumper had misread the laws of nature, which were always secondary to the laws of man. And far less communicative.
There’s a spiritual element throughout “Sunshine Superman” and the exploits of Carl Boenish, who had a bout of polio as a child and recovered to become a man obsessed with action. It would take 20 seconds for anyone with access to Google to find out the ultimate fate of Carl Boenish, and Strauch is wise not to belabor it, partly because it would have betrayed the Boenish on whom she spends so much effort.
An air of religiosity hangs over much of what Boenish is saying during the early going of “Sunshine Superman.” But unexplained mystery surrounds his last two jumps (the first of which was staged for a Guiness World Records television special with David Frost and Kathie Lee). They took place in different spots on Norway’s so-called Troll Wall, which provides an eerie, gothic backdrop to a story wrapped in an existential mist—one that ends up obliterating the sunshine that always seemed to surround the movie’s superman.