Hikers need to watch their steps in ‘Loneliest Planet’

The New York Times News ServiceJanuary 25, 2013 

We never learn very much about Alex and Nica, the young couple (played by Gael Garcia 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 the former Soviet republic of Georgia 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. 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 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 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. I don’t want to spoil a surprise and 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.

“The Loneliest Planet” is unrated and is screening at the State Theatre, 130 W. College Ave., State College. Visit www.ifcfilms.com/films/the-loneliest-planet or call 272-0606 for more information.

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