In "Day Night Day Night," Julia Loktev told the quietly experimental tale of a young would-be suicide bomber nervously wandering through the crowd of Times Square, impressing some critics if not much of an audience beyond that. Her long-awaited follow-up, "The Loneliest Planet," deals with noticeably broader terrain and even includes a mid-size star (Gael Garcia Bernal). Both of those factors yield something closer to a conventional viewing experience than the intentionally prosaic momentum of her previous outing. It's a smart, mesmerizing and provocative expansion of her talents.
However, Loktev remains a devout minimalist whose latest work will surely alienate anyone on the opposing side of the fence when it comes to debates concerning "slow cinema," that broadly defined format for certain films with an extremely casual pace. To those naysayers, I would argue that "The Loneliest Planet" at least qualifies as an exemplary version of that vague category, but also that it earns its unhurried approach in spades. Hardly an indolent director, Loktev has much to say about a couple suffering from the inability to say much of anything.
With luscious visuals lending the feel of a travelogue, Loktev follows spirited young couple Alex (Bernal) and Nica (Hani Furstenberg) as they backpack across the Caucasus Mountains in Georgia a few months ahead of their American wedding. Early fragmentary scenes show them wandering through rural towns, exploring the bustling scene with the giddy expressions of lovers blind to the world's secrets but hypnotized by each other. Then they acquire a smooth-talking guide (Bidzina Gujabidze), head off into the wilderness, and the real journey begins.
Or, rather, it starts to begin. "The Loneliest Planet" contains long stretches of time where the three travelers walk and walk, surrounded by vast green hills, gently flowing streams and little else. Save for pithy conversations around the campfire, they remain largely mute. At first, it becomes a game to wonder when that silence might break, but after awhile the inaction turns into an endless driving force heading nowhere in particular–which is exactly where Loktev wants it to go for the prolonged opening act.
It should come as no surprise that sudden developments eventually shake up the characters' lives and call the couple's relationship into question, but the leisurely pace makes the first incident difficult to predict. Two more eventful moments follow over the course of the movie's 110-minute running time, each contributing a new ingredient to the dynamic shared by Alex and Nica (as well as the enigmatic guide, whose personality eventually enters into the equation).
The performances, particularly Bernal and Furstenberg's ceaselessly ambiguous expressions, provide the essential glue that holds together Loktev's conceit. Her camera (which appears to have been much more expensive than the lightweight DV apparatus used for "Day Night Day Night") stays largely static and observational. Patient viewers will be rewarded with a pay-off worthy of post-screening debate, although it arrives with only brief nuggets of new information that nudge along a virtually non-existent plot.
Although its cast is even smaller than many microbudget film crews, compared to "Day Night Day Night," Loktev has directed an ensemble piece. The expansion from a single, isolated figure in the big city to the multicultural trio in this barren setting results in a movie about several forms of communication: Language, behavior and unstated desires. A natural barrier exists between the couple and their guide, but with time, they discover a similar barrier between each other. The art house answer to recent horror critiques of touristic indulgences (particularly Eli Roth's "Hostel"), Loktev's second feature compellingly argues that we are all foreigners, even to ourselves.
Broadening her storytelling canvas, Loktev displays a strong narrative kinship with Kelly Reichardt. Savants of slow cinema, these filmmakers relish the challenge of allowing evocative stories to emerge from their environments in an organic fashion. It's not just meant as a stamina test; they create the palpable, occasionally haunting sense that while life may amble along, it always has a destination.
criticWIRE grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? IFC releases "The Loneliest Planet" in New York and Los Angeles on Friday. Generally positive reviews may help propel it to decent returns over the next week or so, as will its recent Gotham nomination for Best Film and the added visibility brought on by leading man Gael Garcia Bernal, but its long-term prospects are somewhat dicey.
Editor's note: A version of this review originally ran at the 2011 Locarno Film Festival.