Review by © Jane Freebury
Trekking through the Caucasus Mountains in Georgia with the one you love may not be everyone’s idea of a good time. Fine, though, if you have a well-honed sense of adventure, are strong and fit, and don’t mind sleeping on slopes in a flimsy tent. Russian filmmaker Julia Loktev explores the effect a trip into the unknown can have on a pair of seasoned travellers who are unprepared for the unexpected.
Alex (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Nica (Hani Furstenberg) make a great romantic couple, 21st century style. They can’t get enough of each other which is just as well because they depend on each other intimately to get by. And they are an engaging couple, though they would have been even more so with less impro or better dialogue.
Both are strong and fit – especially her – and with their friendly style get by with hand gestures and a smattering of local language. We know the routine. Although they move around in their own bubble they do also make connections with the locals. And they know their limits. They hire Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze), a local guide, to take them through majestic valleys right up to the snowline.
Sometimes, it’s just all about the scenery. Majestic mountain vistas fill the screen to a gorgeous cello score. Nature dwarfs the intrepid trekkers. They shrink to specs for which we have to search, walking along from right to left then from left to right. Other times it’s about Nica’s red hair. Sometimes that fills the screen too, in wavy abundance.
The guide Dato has some diverting chat and he keeps it light. “Life is good but the good life is better” earns a laugh but his doleful look and the conditions in his country only underline the good fortune of the young backpackers and their carefree outlook. So the occasion when the trekking party comes up against danger shatters the mood, and it’s shocking because there is no warning.
It’s a sadder and a wiser pair of lovers on holiday in the second half. Loktev’s film, which reminds me of some writing by Hemingway, is based on a short story by Tom Bissell, with the intriguing title Expensive Trips Nowhere.
While Loktev’s film turns a few deftly handled plot points, she chances too much with her naturalism in the final scenes. Then the limitations of Gujabidze’s acting skills become apparent and the film’s subtleties are lost in awkward conversation. I didn’t mind the inconclusive final scene, but the film had already lost its way at the campfire. Loktev’s storytelling is often subtle and compelling, but long improvised and banal conversation, although it may be just like backpacker talk around the campfire, spoils the magic.
In a capsule: A trek into the Caucasus wilderness has unexpected consequences for a pair of young backpackers soon to marry. In many ways, this distinctive and subtly told story has a raw power, despite the impro.