Written & Directed by Julia Loktev
One of the true delights of cinema is the simple fact that there are no limits, there are not necessarily any rules to how the game can be played (though I am sure there are some who would argue there are, perhaps not rules, but guidelines). Differences aside, this film is different. I have seen others in the same vein, but the type of film I am talking about is of the under the radar variety. And what a shame that is. It showed in some festivals over the last year, year and a half, then had a very limited theatrical release (playing in all of 13 theaters at its peak during its 8 week theatrical run). It is now available to stream on Netflix, but even then the audience remains small.
It is a simplistic film, following the vacation of an engaged couple, Alex (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Nica (Hani Furstenberg). The couple travel to the Caucasus Mountains in eastern Europe for a lovely treking adventure, but what they end up encountering seems to be a bit more than they bargained for. The film begins idyllically, as the couple enjoys the company of their guide Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze) and the lovely scenery as they ascend the mountain range. A chance encounter, however, begins to test the couples resolve and their relationship. Stranded in the isolation of the wilderness, the two silently attempt to come to grips with what had happened earlier, and how it might affect their future together.
However shameful I may call the petty distribution of this film, it is fitting for what it is. While I complain about the lack visibility of the film, I am not arrogant enough to understand that the film is not for everyone. Heck, I didn’t think it was for me for much of the first act of the film. It begins slowly, quietly, as it starts to build the two main characters and their relationship. Not a whole lot is going on as they do or see this or that and never with any amount of drama or fanfare. I was on the verge of nodding off until the seminal moment in the film. Everything from that point forward feels different, feels important, feels dramatic. But without the initial slow and uneventful setup, the rest of the film would not carry the necessary weight it needs to be effective.
I am not going to give it a pass for being, well, boring for the first part of the film. I do not believe wholeheartedly in that type of criticism. Where I can freely admit that this time spent with the characters is needed, I can also wish that it would have at least been more entertaining or eventful than it was. The film does manage to create some fairly interesting characters. We get somewhat shallow, high-level details on their lives, never learning where Alex and Nica are from and how they fell in love, why they love one another. But Loktev, the writer and director, seems much more concerned with their nature, which allows plenty of room for some very nice performances from the three main actors in the film. Each one evolves and reveals themselves bit by bit as the film progresses.
The Loneliest Planet is not the most accessible film, and not one that would necesarrily entertain just anyone, but Julia Loktev does manage to craft a nice portrait of the evolution of a loving relationship. The performances are the central strength of the film, good across the board. With only the star power of Garcia Bernal, the other two actors (Furstenberg and Gujabidze) are equally impressive. Even existing outside the relationship, and handicapped by language, Gujabidze’s Dato, the couples guide in the mountains, is perhaps the most interesting and compelling character by the end of the film. The beauty of the film is that the landscape evoles with the characters. When once the mountains were bright green, big and beautiful, they soon transition to a much more drab green and the viewer feels the isolation and distance felt by the characters. Far from a perfect film, but Loktev makes a stong effort with The Loneliest Planet.