Love Means Never Having To Say You're Sorry
Alongside American-Israeli Hani Furstenberg after her The Loneliest Planet, Russian-American director Julia Loktev discussed changes she had scripted from the Tom Bissell story “Expensive Trips Nowhere.” Essential was replacing the original married couple bored with each other, with backpackers Alex (Gael García Bernal) and Nica (Furstenberg), in sync and in love and hiking the summer before a planned November wedding. Frisky and playful, the two are physically and emotionally committed to each other.
The not quite two-hour result is itself also physical, a tourist PR coup for the country of Georgia’s Caucasus Mountains. Dialogue is spare and includes patches of unsubtitled Georgian, since most travelers have scant command of local languages, and a couple Spanish preterite conjugations worked in. Backgrounded by long shots of a varied landscape with skies excluded, the loneliness and physical demands of trekking are in the shifting elements, small slips and mishaps, and the repetitious sound of boots on shale shards, rock, sucking mud, crunchy earth and treeless vegetation.
Underneath, however, is an emotional crux halfway through, giving an hourglass shape to the whole. It lasts seconds, no more, is precipitated by who knows what in an unexplained exchange with locals, and, humorous at first take, colors all that follows in the day that is the rest of the journey and, by inference, the rest of these lives. “Good people doing bad things,” which is not the same as evil or catastrophic. At that 2011 New York Film Festival Q&A, both director/writer/co-editor and actress confessed to ambivalent feminist and instinctual reactions themselves and indicated that others’ assessments were also by no means unanimous.
The frames-long crucial defining moment is not brought up by either of the couple or by their regional guide Dato (non-actor Bidzina Gujabidze, his country’s foremost mountain climber and professional guide). They pussyfoot around confrontation, hiking at a physical distance from one another but then not able to overcome emotional distance when they do draw nearer to share dried fruit, water bottles or whiskey, rain shelter or campfire warmth. The elephant in the room is unlike Jack Burden’s unopened telegram, for it is palpable and weighs down shoulders and thoughts.
“Sorry” opens the tale, as Alex fumbles getting a pitcher of heated water to rinse soap from naked Nica, jumping for warmth in the cold upcountry. The s-word will not be uttered again; in defiance of therapists, perhaps it would do no good, anyway, for what is done or not done is there.
Along with striking landscapes, the thirty-year-old Nica stands out visually, slender and female, determined that her strength will measure up to the men’s and surpass it in headstands. She is milky skinned -- why does no one wear a sunhat? -- and crowned with red hair that Daniel Leibold and Inti Briones’ camera caresses in daylight or overlong near darkness around a campfire.
The close-to-basics-and-the-earth hikers make love where- and when-ever possible, but intimacy gets more cramped and difficult after they bargain about price and hire Dato. Head shaved, skull creased, cheeks five-o’clock shadowed, he might be sinister. With English limited enough for humor to fall flat but soon good enough to tell his personal relationship sadness, he is their link to others; more, although some hamlet is not really distant, he is the lifeline without which they are lost and likely dead.
In the closeness that is at the same time necessary distance, he observes without remarking and acts on one of the two foreigners a single time, which act points up their, rather than his, vulnerability. Fatherly or brotherly, paid employee, guide, teacher, protector, an actor to his captive audience, and a personification of natural man’s strengths, weaknesses and mystery, he is a presence but not a friend and does not, will not or cannot, step in to interfere.
Were it not for the consequent mood swing and changed dynamics, a viewer might miss or dismiss the “central rupture,” and in any case his or her individual response to it will say much about him or her.
Such thoughts, however, are more than the film itself. Visuals and emotional core are too separate and too long to sustain the movie. Landscape is indifferent to man, so with much going on for the eye, his inner workings are felt but too slightly by the onlooker.
(Released by IFC Films; not rated by MPAA.)