When you go off the beaten track, not everything you will find will necessarily be to your liking. Some people may seek adventure, but might balk at what that entails or reveals about others or about themselves. That grey area is exactly what Russian-American director Julia Loktev wants to explore in her third feature: the moment where the illusion of safety and comfort is stripped away to reveal unexpected, unpleasant truths. She does so through a somewhat arid and theoretical exploration of context, where the outside landscape remains immutable while those crossing it change as they move forward, in ways they weren't necessarily expecting.

     Essentially, The Loneliest Planet is a three-hander set in remote, mountainous Georgia (the former Russian republic, not the American state), putting in play the Western backpacking couple Nica and Alex (Hani Furstenberg and Gael García Bernal) and their local guide Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze). Nica and Alex are young, in love and engaged to be married, and unafraid of the unusual experiences their exotic destinations bring them. But the old adage that it's not the destination, rather the journey that matters, is made dramatically visible here: the film pivots on one central incident set precisely at narrative midpoint, structuring it as a "before and after" tale that may bring to mind Michelangelo Antonioni's immortal L'Avventura set in a Werner Herzog landscape, or even Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff.

     Despite these references, though, this is Ms. Loktev's film through and through, as those who have seen her striking Day Night Day Night will remember; a formalist director if ever there was one, her fastidious compositions (brilliantly shot by talented Chilean DP Inti Briones) very carefully designed to always look just a touch off-kilter and leave something important hovering off the frame, she is also looking for a narrative symmetry radiating from a central point that changes her characters' point of view and the nature that surrounds them. What looks enticing one moment becomes forbidding the next, beautiful first, desolate the next; Nica and Alex's voyage of discovery turns out to have darker undertones, with the outer travelogue through breathtaking landscapes becoming more of an inner travelogue around an unmentioned elephant in the room. The central incident itself becomes less and less important, overtaken by what it reveals and suggests about the people who lived it, slowly coming to dominate the characters' thoughts and actions, with the actors (and especially the fiery Ms. Furstenberg) nicely playing off each other to make visible to the camera what is going on in their minds.

     Admittedly, The Loneliest Planet isn't particularly original or innovative (even its sly questioning of the real motives behind this kind of exotic first-world tourism remains somewhat unfinished), but there's a fierce intelligence and determination at work in Ms. Loktev's film to make it much more intriguing than it seems at first sight.

Cast: Gael García Bernal, Hani Furstenberg, Bidzina Gujabidze
Director: Julia Loktev
Screenplay: Ms. Loktev, based on the short story by Tom Bissell, "Expensive Trips Nowhere"
Cinematography: Inti Briones  (colour)
Music: Richard Skelton
Production and costume designer: Rabiah Troncelliti
Editors: Michael Taylor, Ms. Loktev
Sound design: Martín Hernández
Producers: Jay van Hoy, Lars Knudsen, Helge Albers, Marie-Thérèse Guirgis  (Wild Invention, Parts and Labor and Flying Moon Filmproduktion in co-production with ZDF das kleine Fernsehspiel and ARTE)
USA/Germany, 2011, 113 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Cinema City Classic Alvalade 3, Lisbon, May 14th 2013


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