Where is this place, you wonder? An old lady speaks to Nica (Hani Furstenberg) and Alex (Gael Garcia Bernal) in some untranslated tongue, and they answer in the fragmented phrases of tourists. They wander and play among deserted streets and concrete buildings, all a decade past down-at-the-heels, under the shadow of green hills. They hitch up their backpacks and hire a dour-looking guide (Bidzina Gujabidze) to take them on a trek through the backcountry of whichever country this is. But, as writer/director Julia Loktev's elliptical style and carefully parsed feed of information telegraph, the journey at the center of The Loneliest Planet (MPI DVD, download, and streaming) isn't merely geographical, and the perils aren't confined to getting lost.
Before you stop reading, Loktev aims higher than another xenophobic bloody-tanktop shocker. Richard Skelton's snatches of score scan horror-eerie, but this is not that movie. Instead, Nica, Alex, and Dato, the guide, hike and play, the lovers gamboling across the sere hills (of former Soviet republic Georgia, it turns out), Dato smoking, and the Americans and the guide getting to know each other through the slight language barrier. Nothing much happens, and when something does happen—no, probably not what you're predicting in your head—it's so brief and subtle that you might almost feel as if you missed something. (I rewound to watch it again.) No one discusses it afterward, but, as they say, everything changes.
Loktev's slow-burn, wrong-footing style is sure to try the many moviegoers who prefer to have some idea of where they're going. For those with a little more patience for uncertainty, The Loneliest Planet offers exquisite torture. Basically, you watch three people for an hour, waiting to see what happens, but as you watch, you learn, you suspect, you assume, you find yourself wrong, and surprised, even though you saw it coming. A good film often teaches you how to watch it, and soon you're wondering if the flaming ginger of Nica's hair is telling you something, or if it's just a red herring. You start to read what the relative distance and configuration of the hikers reveal as they trudge. By the time the story makes its critical shift, you realize that the terrain explored here is internal, a map of the branching possibilities we face when we trust people, whether those closest to us or just a man we meet on the street, and how we navigate from there.
Not everything works perfectly, but you don't mind bearing with it, not least because of the revelatory Furstenberg and the adroit, patient Loktev. Whatever you think of this, what the latter does next now rises to the level of a must-see.
Speaking of dislocating environments, Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow (Alive Mind/Kino Lorber DVD only) opens with a camera dollying down bleak, rough-cut corridors punctuated by shafts of light from some upper world as eerie sonorities flood the soundtrack. Slabs of broken stone lie in tumble-down piles as muted screams ebb and surge. The effect is utterly alien. But the endless tracking shots reveal the occasional bare light bulb or twisted end of rebar, and a few may recognize the foreboding music as Gyorgy Ligeti, whose compositions once lent unearthly, elemental patina to another man-made construction—Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.
This strange, expansive world came into being through the vision of German artist Anselm Keifer, who spent more than 15 years transforming an abandoned factory complex in the south of France into not just a workshop and showcase for his art, but multi-acre art itself. Toward the end, director Sophie Fiennes paid him, and it, a visit.
After opening with 20 minutes of wordless, depopulated travel around and through Keifer's complex, Fiennes does put things into more human scale. She films Keifer and his cadre of assistants working, a practice that ranges from studio-intimate (Keifer and his helpers working on one of his outsized, muted canvases—at one point covering it in a thick layer of ash) to construction-site broad (an assistant digging raw dirt out of a subterranean space with power equipment). She sits in on an interview with a visiting journalist that reveals little about Keifer or his increasingly monumental work. Only late in the going do a few snatches of voiceover address specifically the site at Barjac, and give the film its title.
If Fiennes does a poor job of providing context for Keifer's project, let alone his life or career, her visual exploration proves mesmerizing nonetheless. While the artist uses many recognizably human tokens—giant books with pages of sheet lead, rough concrete-slab houses, NASA star maps—the overall effect of the Barjac site evokes the awe and terror of a planet that existed for millennia without us and will continue to revolve for millennia once there's no one left to ponder our feeble ruins.