When two hipsters go on a guided camping expedition in the Caucasus Mountains, an incident tears a rift between them in “The Loneliest Planet,” writer-helmer Julia Loktev’s powerful, exquisitely lensed third feature. As with her previous film, “Day Night Day Night,” Loktev withholds vital information here about her characters’ inner thoughts, a strategy that will provoke passionate arguments over post-screening drinks, perhaps enhancing word of mouth. More commercially viable than “Day Night,” especially given its spectacular use of locations and the presence of star Gael Garcia Bernal, pic should trek around the fest circuit and pitch camp with specialty distributors.
Practically no backstory is provided about protagonists Alex (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Nica (Gotham-born, Israel-based thesp Hani Furstenberg), but what’s clear is that they’re seasoned travelers who pride themselves, perhaps a little smugly, on roughing it in countries off the usual tourist track. Clearly, they’re also besotted with each other, evinced in scenes of them canoodling, frisking like puppies or making love in low-lit, odd-angled shots.
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After haggling in a local burg for a guide, they retain the services of Dato (real mountaineer Bidzina Gujabidze) to steer them through the extraordinary, grass-clad mountains of the Khevi region. Much of the pic’s first hour unspools through continuous handheld shots of the threesome trudging along with backpacks, telling stories when they’re not silently concentrating on navigating treacherous terrain. At regular interludes, long-distance shots observe them dwarfed by the landscape as Richard Skelton’s haunting, rhythmic, ethnically inflected score intones in the background.
An encounter on the trail turns into a near-life-threatening test of manhood that Alex arguably fails. Thereafter, none of the characters discuss what happened, but it casts a profound pall over the adventure, shifting allegiances and sympathies among the threesome. Auds are bound to differ over how to interpret the turning point and its consequences, while those who know the source material, a short story called “Expensive Trips Nowhere” by Tom Bissell, might quibble that Loktev’s recasting the couple as younger lovers weakens the psychological credibility of Alex’s actions. But other viewers may recognize a core emotional truth about how deeply travel tests relationships, how a single instinctive action can shift the ground irrevocably between people, and how no words can make things right.
The realism is enhanced by nuanced, semi-improvised perfs from Bernal and Furstenberg. The way they silently project Alex and Nica’s anger, disappointment and the faint rekindling of affection later on impresses just as much as their willingness to take physical risks. Loktev’s muscular, distinctive helming percussively deploys repetition and shock cuts (she also takes a co-editing credit) that’s of a piece with “Day Night Day Night” and her docu “Moment of Impact.”
However, it’s the craftsmanship of Chilean lenser Inti Briones, who has worked with Raul Ruiz and Cristian Jimenez, that really steals the show here. Using a Red camera rigged to carry Soviet Lomo prime lenses that lend a Slavic softness to the proceedings, Briones makes the landscape look both achingly romantic and malevolent, offering nowhere to hide in this treeless expanse.