Alex and Nica are young, in love and engaged to be married. The summer before their wedding, they are backpacking in the Caucasus Mountains in Georgia. The couple hire a local guide to lead them on a camping trek, and the three set off into a stunning wilderness, a landscape that is both overwhelmingly open and frighteningly closed. Walking for hours, they trade anecdotes and play games to pass the time, until a momentary misstep, a gesture that takes only two or three seconds, changes everything. –Locarno Film Festival
Adjust to the deliberate rhythms of this hiking movie—set on the lush slopes of Georgia’s Caucasus Mountains—and the psychological payoff stings like a blister. Our characters are engaged lovers, still in the throes of puppyish dotage: Alex (Gael García Bernal) and Nica (Hani Furstenberg, a real find) evidently pride themselves on roughing it, eschewing fancy digs for bathing in unheated water and scrabbling over boulders. They smile at the locals with a minimum of chat, sneak off to paw at each other, and at one point, play an impromptu game of volleyball with an unseen stranger on the other side of a backyard wall. A quiet, authoritative guide, Dato (real-life mountaineer Bidzina Gujabidze), leads them deep within the countryside. The camera pulls away as the trio progresses, stride by stride, existing fully within the moment.
There’s a reason for all of this, so pardon the coyness that forbids me from describing a split-second incident on the trail that changes everything. What could possibly go wrong between two people who are so intimately connected? In the widening eyes of Alex, we suddenly see a weakness, a failure of masculinity (Bernal’s forte), and nothing is ever the same. Brooklyn director Julia Loktev likes to strip things down to the bone; her previous feature, Day Night Day Night(2006), managed to find its way into the cryptic head of a sullen Times Square suicide bomber. Her movies are journeys that arrive at a test of will, and she’s seemingly more interested in failures of nerve than successes. (Hers is a kind of anti-action filmmaking.) Still, the trek goes on for Alex and Nica. The warmhearted couple we’ve come to know would surely be able to talk this rift out, but maybe they weren’t that couple to begin with.
By A. O. SCO
October 25, 2012
We never learn very much about Alex and Nica, the young couple (played by Gael García Bernal and Hani Furstenberg) at the center of“The Loneliest Planet.” As cute as a pair of kittens and obviously in love, they are backpacking through Georgia — the former Soviet republic, not the American state — a few months before their wedding. Their interactions are playful and tender. They play with local children, conjugate Spanish verbs and have an affectionate, sexy teasing rapport with each other. Where they live, what they do for a living, the quality of their ideas or the nature of their opinions — none of this is especially relevant.
Alex and Nica are thus somewhat paradoxical creatures, at once highly specific and maddeningly abstract. “The Loneliest Planet,” the second fictional feature directed by Julia Loktev, is rigorously committed to a particular kind of minimalism. Ms. Loktev is highly, even morbidly attentive to physical detail, to registering the sounds, colors and textures of the natural world and the tiniest nuances of human behavior. She also ruthlessly purges her movies of the kind of psychological expression and narrative exposition that most filmmakers depend on. Her stories take place in a vacuum that is also recognizably and palpably the real world.
Her previous film, “Day Night Day Night” (2006), follows a young woman through Midtown Manhattan. She is even more of an abstraction than Alex and Nica: all the viewer knows about her is that she carries a backpack full of explosives and is planning a suicide bombing in Times Square. The documentary background and the camera’s unflinching attention to her every step, gesture and facial expression both create suspense and induce a kind of philosophical reverie. Who is this person? Why is she doing this? What does it all mean?
Similar questions hover around “The Loneliest Planet,” even though the dramatic stakes seem lower. The title evokes a series of guidebooks popular among adventurous travelers, and Alex and Nica, setting out for a hike in the Caucasus Mountains with a local guide named Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze), seem to fit that profile. They are daring and carefree but not especially reckless, and they tramp across a rocky, empty landscape with easygoing determination. Occasionally the guide tries to make conversation, telling a labored dirty joke or a puzzling anecdote about buying a car.
Every step carries a premonition that something might happen, a sense of foreboding and latent violence that Ms. Loktev creates by amplifying ordinary sounds, applying small doses of portentous music and cutting abruptly between shots. Something eventually does happen. I can’t be more specific, partly because I don’t want to spoil a surprise and also because the specifics don’t necessarily matter.
What matters is the effect of the event on Alex and Nica. It either opens a fissure in their relationship or reveals one that had been there all along, though those are only two of the many possibilities. The episode — which lasts a few seconds and is never spoken of afterward — might just be a crazy story they will tell at their wedding, or something they’ll fight about later, or forget about entirely.
Such speculation is as vain as wondering about what these people were doing before they went to Georgia, though just as inevitable. Their isolation from each other, from us and from Dato is part of the point of the film, which is (speaking of paradoxes) aggressive in its subtlety. It is gripping and haunting, but also coy and elusive.