Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Loneliest Planet: What Happens in the Causcasus . . .

It seems obvious, but it bears repeating.  Roughing it through foreign lands can take a toll on a relationship, especially when it is just the two of you.  Heedlessly, the engaged Nica and Alex do exactly that.  Why yes, they are hipsters.  Nonetheless, the hardscrabble folk living in and around Georgia’s Caucasus mountain range seem to take a liking to them.  Yet, one mistake will potentially ruin everything in Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York at the IFC Center.

Like Hungary’s Lake Balaton, the Caucasus Mountains were once a prime Soviet vacation spot, but Putin’s military incursion was not good for the tourist trade.  The Russians would best be advised not to invade the beautiful but rugged mountain range, for reasons that will become clear to the two young tourists.  Initially for Nica and Alex, it is like a giant playground.  Every day they explore abandoned buildings and vehicles, soaking up the scenery.  Each time they interact with an ominous looking local, it turns out pleasantly at the end.

Hiring Dato as their guide, Nica and Alex begin their trek in earnest, but the taciturn mountaineer does not dampen their giddy spirits.  However, they will eventually learn he is a man with some history.  A fleeting moment of crisis will also threaten to forever rupture their relationship.

Cinematographer Inti Briones captures all the rough sweeping grandeur of the Caucasus, which is a fortunate thing, because for long stretches of time that is all viewers have to work with.  Structurally, Planet consists of a laborious set-up, about two seconds of pay-off, and an extended denouement.   Why it has received such enthusiastic international accolades is a bit mystifying.  Though certainly not terrible, it is quite a bit like scores of other slightly pretentious festival films that are too cool for dialogue.

Granted, the small cast often says a great deal with a look or a subtle bit of body language, particularly Hani Furstenberg’s Nica.  However, there is a difference between understatement and not saying anything.  Partly based on former Uzbekistani Peace Corps volunteer and recovering videogame addict Tom Bissell’s short story “Expensive Trips Nowhere,” Loneliest probably would have packed a more powerful punch as a short film.

Having relocated to New York from Israel, the eerily expressive Furstenberg is likely to be in high demand amongst the mumblecore set, based on her work in Planet.  Gael García Bernal is also quite well cast as Alex, but for rather unflattering reasons.  The scraggly Brooklyn-style beard essentially says all we need to know about him.  However, it is the work of nonprofessional actor Bidzina Gujabidze (who reluctantly postponed a Himalayan expedition to appear in Planet) who really makes a lasting impact as the mysterious Dato.

After watching Planet many viewers will feel like they hiked the Caucasus range themselves.  Loktev strikingly captures the overwhelming atmosphere of desolation but her sense of pacing is decidedly slack.  Not recommended beyond a limited self-selecting circle of film snobs, The Loneliest Planet opens this Friday (10/26) at the IFC Center.