The backpacking protagonists of The Loneliest Planet are experienced world travelers, but also wide-eyed kids. Nica (Hani Furstenberg) and Alex (Gael Garcia Bernal) have recently arrived in the foothills of Georgia's Caucasus Mountains, where they frolic with local children. Even what we see of the couple's lovemaking is mostly horseplay.
Something serious will happen after Nica and Alex hire a guide, Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze), and begin to ascend into the treeless heights. But writer-director Julia Loktev, a Russian-born American, is a stalwart minimalist. She doesn't oversell the movie's moment of crisis or the largely wordless reassessment that follows it.
Set at a hiker's pace, the film is as slow and naturalistic as any by Meek's Cutoff director Kelly Reichardt. It includes improvised dialogue and nonprofessional performers. (Gujabidze is a well-known Georgian mountaineer with no previous acting experience.) Yet the story is carefully constructed, with moments that seem offhand initially, but are later revealed as crucial.
In the very first shot, a naked and soapy Nica jumps up and down to stay warm while she waits for Alex to bring some warm water to rinse off. "Sorry, sorry, sorry," he says as he arrives. Later, when Alex fails Nica more dramatically, he won't be able to find even such a simple word to apologize.
Not long after Nica's cold shower, the two travelers see a ball soar over a wall. They throw it back, only to have it return; this is repeated again and again. Someone is playing with them, but they don't know who it is — and whether the game is innocent or not. This, too, presages later events.
Nica and Alex are not the only ones who lack basic information. Loktev doesn't tell the audience much about her main characters and declines to subtitle the supporting players' Georgian dialogue. Occasionally, the locals refer to the backpackers as "American," but Bernal is clearly a native Spanish speaker. (Bernal is Mexican, while Furstenburg is a New Yorker who's done most of her acting in Israel.)
The film was shot with digital cameras outfitted with vintage Russian lenses, which provide the soft-focus look common to Soviet-era cinema. Other aspects of the movie's style are more experimental. Loktev punctuates the action with several real-time, fixed-position long shots in which the trio trudges from one side of the frame to the other; these are scored to Richard Skelton's folkloric music. Most of the other scenes are shot with hand-held camera and feature only ambient sound.
In a different sort of movie, this low-key approach might be a setup for a shattering moment. But The Loneliest Planet's central event is fleeting, and its significance ambiguous. The incident could be said to undermine Alex's masculinity. Yet the movie, adapted from a Tom Bissell short story ("Expensive Trips Nowhere") that traces its basic plot to Ernest Hemingway's 1936 "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber," occurs in a very different world than Hemingway's. Nica is not a delicate flower who must be protected; she's just as much an adventurer as Alex.
"As a woman, I'm not so clear on what I expect from a man," Loktev notes, and her film reflects this ambiguity. That may frustrate viewers who prefer more explicit developments and more definitive answers. But The Loneliest Planet does have a quiet power, which is amplified by the movie's rugged landscape. A mountain range is an apt locale for the tale of a man who's suddenly, startlingly informed that he can't control the world around him.