Here is a quiet film of several familiar genres rolled together. It is a road trip movie, a travel movie, and a romantic drama. Though the basic plot structure involves a man meeting an enchanting woman in a foreign land, the real romance is not between the characters, but in filmmaker Braden King's love for his surroundings. Shot entirely in Armenia, the camera slowly pans across spectacular panoramas in the film's most powerful moments, leaving other elements of the story underrealized or underserved.
The film follows Will, an American mapmaker in the age of satellite technology, and Gadarine, an expatriate photographer, returned to Armenia on a grant. Will is by nature and profession a loner, every now and then superficially bonding with those around him through shared shots of vodka and broken conversations. Ben Foster, behind spectacles and a scruffy blond beard, plays Will persuasively as he diligently pins images to a map of the country, creating a more accurate survey of the land for his private (and possibly shadowy) employers.
Gadarine, played by Lubna Azabal, is a fitting counterpart, estranged from both her family and her homeland. The film introduces her as she walks slowly towards a hotel in the middle of the night. She is followed by a cab driver who first propositions and then threatens her after she curses him in English. Though Armenian, she is a foreigner, as is repeatedly demonstrated by this scene and in her interactions with her brother early in the film.
Will and Gadarine meet briefly over breakfast at their shared hotel, neither one seeming to make much of a lasting impression on the other. A later chance encounter at a swanky reception in Gadarine's honor sets the stage for Will's interest in her, but their flirtation is awkward to watch and unconvincing, much like the rest of their on-screen relationship will be.
The moments between the narrative dialogue, in which Braden King lingers over the landscape and Will and Gadarine are tiny figures in the midst of larger tableaus, are breathtaking. A soundtrack of light strings and guitar plucks, along with traditional Armenian music, suits these scenes particularly well. It is a pleasure to roam over a beautiful, unfamiliar landscape and soak in these sights and sounds.
Commissioned interludes by a group of avant-garde filmmakers, often featuring the rumbling voice of Peter Coyote as narrator, interrupt the larger narrative. These more mystical segments of cut-up film and flashing colors serve no tangible purpose, cheapening the actual transcendence provided by King's landscape shots. One appears potentially dangerous to epileptics.
In the end, Will and Gadarine's affair is difficult to comprehend. King suggests their relationship mirrors the political confusion of the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region, which is where things start to fall apart for them romantically as well. Gadarine, in a moment of tension, yells at the mapmaker, "You don't know where you are." Will's measurements persistently refuse to match up, a heavy-handed sign that his worlds of absolutes may no longer suffice. Gadarine's feline independence and easy photographic successes make her (and, subsequently, her attraction to Will) all the less real.
Here excels in many ways: in pinpointing Will's wanderlust; in capturing the beauty of the Armenian land; in exploring Gadarine's guilt as she pursues her artistic career while sacrificing her familial duties. It suffers in overreaching. What should be a story of two people thrown together by chance attempts to become an epic story of "the explorer." This is an identity neither Will nor Gadarine truly inhabits, despite their ultimate and somewhat unexpected outpouring of emotion toward each other. Enjoy the startling beauty of a distant land, but don't expect larger truths to emerge while observing its vistas.
Here is showing at the San Francisco Film Society May 11 – 17, 2012. For showtimes and more information visit sffs.org.