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Two backpackers explore the country of Georgia in 'The Loneliest Planet'

'The Loneliest Planet' starts off slow, then hits the audience with a shock when the two travelers are attacked.

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'The Loneliest Planet' stars Gael García Bernal (l.), Hani Furstenberg (r.), and Bidzina Gujabidze (center).

Courtesy of IFC Films

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In “The Loneliest Planet,” the sensual thrill of being a stranger in a strange land is what propels two young backpackers to venture into the mountainous Khevi region of the former Soviet republic of Georgia. Alex (Gael García Bernal) and his fiancée, Nica (Hani  Furstenberg), have hired a grizzled guide, Dato (real mountaineer Bidzina Gujabidze), to help them negotiate the journey. Except for a brief prelude, and a crucial interlude halfway through, these are pretty much the only people we see for the entire movie.

The wonder is that so much emotional resonance comes through despite these limitations. The dialogue is more than spare – it’s sparse. Long stretches are wordless. For a while, I enjoyed the scruffiness of the trip, the vistas, the affable, going-nowhere ambience. But I also began to wonder just why we were watching this journey. As naturalism it was lovely, but as drama it was somewhat inert. I chalked this restlessness up to my bad Hollywood habits. Why, I wondered, can’t I just sit back and enjoy the ride without expecting (hoping?) it turns into “Deliverance”?

Well, it doesn’t go the “Deliverance” route, but that crucial interlude, in which the three are set upon by mountain people, changes everything. And deepens everything. Now we can see why writer-director Julia Loktev leads up to this scene in such a carefree manner. She wants the shock to hit us in the same way that it hits Alex and Nica.

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