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The Loneliest Planet

November 9, 2012
The Loneliest Planet

Backpacking through central Asia sounds like a romantic adventure, but it’s probably a hobby for the young. It takes a certain brash view on life — a combination of the confidence to be able to handle whatever troubles may come one’s way, and the ignorance of what troubles are even possible. A devil-may-care attitude has a way of dissolving when the devil shows up, and the smallest of mishaps can lead to an irreparable crack in an arrogant bravado. So one young couple learns in The Loneliest Planet.

Nica (Hani Furstenberg) and Alex (Gael García Bernal) are a young couple out gallivanting across the world together, far from the beaten tourist path. Somewhere in Georgia — the one in Eurasia — they hire a local, Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze), to lead them across the mountains. The obvious storyline would be some sort of violent betrayal on Dato’s part, director Julia Loktev’s script is subtler than that. What happens is far less sensational and more realistic, and is all the more disquieting for it.

It is, however, very long. Huge swaths of time pass in which almost nothing seems to happen. Eventually it became clear to me what Loktev was doing, but there were many times when I wondered if she was going anywhere, or if scenes were just included as a travelogue. For the patient, the film works as is, but it could probably survive almost as effectively at a quarter of its current length. Many scenes go on much longer than is strictly necessary, and some feel completely extraneous, even in retrospect.

As a travelogue, however, the film is gorgeous. Many long, wide shots present the Caucasus mountains at their most beautiful, and the figures passing in front of them give a sense of their monumental scale, as well as the shifting relationships between the characters. The closer scenes are no less pretty, and long takes give plenty of time for subtle performances to work.

It’s interesting to note that Tom Bissell’s original short story “Expensive Trips Nowhere” — from the anthology God Lives in St. Petersburg: and Other Stories — concerns not a young fiancé and fiancée, but rather an older couple whose relationship is already strained at the outset. Exposing a foundational weakness is more interesting than pushing over a teetering old relic, and the role that Dato plays is far less clichéd in the film than in its source. Whatever you think of her directorial choices, Loktev deserves no small credit for her adaptation.

Worth It: yes, if you have the patience.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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