My one complaint about The Loneliest Planet: it might seem rather long for its minimalist plot. Beyond that, the dramatic turning point key to the dynamic of the three characters at the heart of the film feels so compelling, I would urge viewers to give it a chance. Maybe the film needs to drone on before and after this moment of crisis when a young, soon-to-be-wed couple is given a taste of the Real, in order to emphasize its traumatic quality because there is nothing flashy about the moment: not in edits, not in close-up, not in musical score. This is a moment solely dependent on the actor. It happens in just a split second, and it reveals what a great actor Gael García Bernal is in a film that mostly ambles along with a casual, almost documentary cinéma vérité feel.
The incident occurs during a days-long trek through the Caucasus mountains in Georgia. Alex (Bernal) and his fiancé Nica (Hani Furstenberg) are presented as happy-go-lucky outdoor adventurers. They are content to be in a far Eastern European country where they hardly know the language. Their “hotel” is a room in a house filled with kids, and they must bathe with buckets of cold water. There is no sense of tourism in this nowhere city. The couple sits in stranded cob-webbed Mercedes buses and hang on their ceiling-mounted handle bars as if playing on a jungle gym. They are killing time until meeting up with their tour guide Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze). He will take them on a hiking trip through the luscious, unspoiled mountain range that will last several days, but, most importantly, he will take them to a place of unshakeable psychological trauma for these westerners.
When the trio heads out into the land, the most dynamic thing about the trip is Nica’s bright red hair against an array of landscapes filled with gray rock and green grass. The characters’ mostly green outfits also blend in with the environment. If it were not for Nica’s shock of alien red hair, these scenes would feel torturous to some of the more impatient film viewers, as almost nothing of significance seems to happen for almost an hour. Adding some dynamism to the scenes is the director’s interjection of distant shots. Julia Loktev presents these with a ponderous, alien music of a churning bowed instrument, reverberating and full of luscious echo. The actors are so distant in these shots it seems hard to tell who is who. What matters is the land and the feel of permanence captured in these long shots where the characters practically walk from one end of the frame to another to a music that seems to capture both the film’s entrancing minimalism and the perpetuation of the land.
The characters mumble things to each other and are often caught in mid conversation, clashing cultures with their amiable tour guide. Nothing said matters as much as the moment that proves traumatic to this couple’s relationship, and then, when that moment happens, it marks something beyond words. The effect on the couple seems irrevocable, though who knows how it will end for them. It may be a taste of how they will grow apart or it could end up bringing them closer together. Playtime and adventures could very well be over for them, but then the film ends as abruptly as all its scenes seem to have begun.
Loktev seems to say people move on with their traumas forever, but also in their brief place in time on this perpetual earth, while the landscape groans on. The scenes of the land are always gorgeous, some would say indulgent in their length. When it disappears into the night, during meandering conversations and songs around the campfire, the film might feel even longer. I would agree that the film would lose nothing with some trimming. The point will still be easy to understand, but, at the same time, the film’s ingenious dramatic arc is worth seeing for its minimalist brilliance.
The Loneliest Planet marks Loktev’s return to the big screen after six years of silence and lots of buzz about her debut, Day Night Day Night, a film following a young girl with a bag of explosives in Manhattan. It clearly presents Loktev as no fluke, and a director with an uncompromising vision. She wants her message to transcend the limits of the medium, as she captures the relevance of what is missing as much as what is obvious, for it is in the places that are missing where the sublime experience or the traumatic moments lie in wait to manifest as mere symptoms of perpetual trauma until we return to the land.
The Loneliest Planet is not rated (but has adult language and casual full frontal nudity), is in English and Spanish and Georgian with English subtitles and runs 115 min. It is currently playing exclusively at the Cosford Cinema at the University of Miami in South Florida, which provided a preview screener for the purpose of this review. If you are in other parts of the US, find out where its playing by entering your zip code on the film’s official website.