Lives Reflected in Natural Vistas

Gael Garcia Bernal, Bidzina Gujabidze, and Hani Furstenberg in Julia Loktev’s “The Loneliest Planet.” | SUNDANCE SELECTS

Like Abbas Kiarostami’s “Certified Copy,” Julia Loktev’s “The Loneliest Planet,” made in the republic of Georgia by an American director, feels like a 1950s or ‘60s European art film that just happened to be taking place now. In its use of landscape to express the psychological makeup of a relationship, “The Loneliest Planet” recalls Roberto Rossellini’s “Stromboli” and “Voyage To Italy.” However, there’s something very modern about it as well –– a casual, unexplained globalism.

Her protagonists are an American woman (played by an actress whose career has mostly taken place in Israel), a Mexican man, and their Georgian tour guide. The guide has a monologue where he complains about his wife leaving him for a Turk. “Not a European!,” he complains.

The film includes very brief scenes of untranslated Georgian dialogue, as well as bits of Spanish. To some extent, relying on this device may stem from Loktev’s own background as an immigrant; her family moved from Russia to Colorado when she was nine. At the same time, “The Loneliest Planet,” adapted from a short story by Tom Bissell, suggests that one can’t understand how Europe has changed without an appreciation for its cultural past.

Alex (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Nica (Hani Furstenberg) are a young couple, spending the summer before their marriage backpacking across Georgia, with the hired help of local guide Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze). As they walk, Alex and Nica practice Spanish verbs and listen to Dato tell jokes about the Chinese. Almost nothing dramatic happens for the first half of “The Loneliest Planet,” but then the threat of violence suddenly erupts, and one of the characters makes a questionable decision. This upends Alex and Nica’s relationship, a situation complicated further by the fact that Dato is always watching them.

There are a number of ways Loktev could have shot the Georgian landscape. She picked two. First, she often uses a handheld camera, carried close to the actors’ bodies. In intimate surroundings, it almost becomes a fourth character. She also relies on extreme long shots as punctuation; sometimes, the characters are reduced to dots against a backdrop of green mountains. These images are generally accompanied by folk music, presumably from the region. As the characters pass through the Georgian countryside, the landscape seems to change to reflect their mood, growing strangely lunar and bleak at times.

“The Loneliest Planet” draws on Loktev’s experience as a backpacker. “I traveled alone across Central Asia from Turkmenistan to Kazakhstan for half a year when I was 22, and I’ve spent a lot of time accidentally making a fool of myself in various parts of the world since,” she has said.

It is also influenced by other films. Both the plot and setting of Atom Egoyan’s “Calendar,” in which an Armenian-Canadian couple’s relationship comes apart during a trip to their ancestral homeland, come to mind. Kiarostami’s use of long shots in “And Life Goes On” and “Through The Olive Trees” is also evoked by Loktev. “The Loneliest Planet,” “And Life Goes On,” and “Calendar” are all road movies of a kind.

If there’s a major flaw to “The Loneliest Planet,” it’s that the structure is lopsided. The first half of the film is a placid travelogue. The second half is far more dramatic, but even there, the structure is essentially a setup for a handful of key scenes. The film demands close attention. The changes Alex and Nica go through, on a scene-by-scene basis, are fairly subtle. That said, Nica is put in danger twice, and the decisions Alex and Dato make about how to protect her resonate throughout the rest of the film.

Loktev’s first narrative feature, “Day Night Day Night,” followed a would-be suicide bomber around Times Square. It’s one of the definitive examinations of post-9/11 paranoia, yet it made little dent at the box office, which is undoubtedly one of the reasons it took Loktev five years to make a follow-up. She seems to have benefited from a larger budget –– as well as the presence of a movie star in Garcia Bernal –– this time around, but “The Loneliest Planet” is not at all compromised. It allows a story to emerge from its setting and characters on its own terms. As with all films, there’s a degree of artifice here, but Loktev makes her achievement look almost effortless.

THE LONELIEST PLANET | Directed by Julia Loktev | Sundance Selects | Opens Oct. 26 | IFC Center | 323 Sixth Ave. at W. Third St. |