What is the loneliest planet?
This is a question which played by chance after watching writer/director Julia Loktev’s latest feature film, visually stunning The Loneliest Planet.
Adapted from a short story by journalist and travel writer, Tom Bissell, Loktev draws out the tale almost in real-time of Nica and Alex, a young couple passionately in love with each other and on the brink of marriage. Too soon, but not soon enough for the audience, they find themselves on the brink of betrayal, wrought by a single shocking event, which shatters everything they think they know about each other, and about themselves.
Nica, played by Hani Furstenberg a talented Israeli-American actor who could give Jessica Chastain a run for her money – partly ’cause she’s a ranga – and Alex, played by Gabriel Garcia Bernal, (The Motorcycle Diaries (2004) and Babel (2006)) are fit, seasoned backpackers, seeking experiences off the beaten track in rural Georgia, Russia. I say seasoned, unlike their clothes, which never seem to get dirty or torn, no matter how many rocks they clamber over or grassy mountains they roll down. But hey, John Wayne’s shining new trousers and red shirt at the start of The Searchers (1956) never truly belied the adventures of a U.S. Confederate soldier who has ridden rough for three years before arriving home to his family out in the Texas desert.
Alex and Nica’s Georgian local mountaineering guide, played by Bidzina Gujabidze, is at first a subtly shy though friendly older character, in counterpoint to the garrulous Nica, but as Nica discovers, behind the scarred exterior Dato is a thoughtful man hiding a tenderly complex story of loneliness which proves an elixir in the resolution. Gujabidize, an accomplished mountaineer, rather than actor, offers an authentic, nuanced performance in his feature film début.
We are easily drawn into the minutiae of life on a trek in a foreign country: a tourist’s eye-view of magnificent, rugged countryside, which both invigorates and blisters the traveller’s spirit and feet, from shattering rock-strewn hillside, to washing in flat waterways, and laughing over cheeky language games. There are some unsettling moments for Nica and Alex: perhaps this land is not so friendly, but Dato ushers them through with care. These hints of danger tease the viewer into thinking that they are watching a thriller. The rising tedium – I wanted to yank a chunk out of the story – leading to the crisis moment in Alex and Nica’s journey, contrasts with the slow-moving but rising tension in the climax scene, during which an inevitable careless betrayal elicits the aforementioned elixir. Delaying the drama is an intriguing choice, but as a measure of character development, it works well.
After watching this film, I find the loneliest planet is not the isolated wilds of remote Georgia‘s Caucasus Mountains, but the human heart.
No bull: If you love backpacking, or storytelling that gives you time to smell the roses, then it is worth a look.
Newly released in Australian cinemas, The Loneliest Planet is clever, simple character-based storytelling. Slow in parts, it is ultimately evocative, and provocative.
To watch The Loneliest Planet preview:
c. Kylie Lawrence 2013.