Two lone world travelers, an engineer and an artist, meet at a café. He’s an American engrossed in his surveying equipment and a laptop computer full of numbers for mapping the “ground truth” of satellite images. Back from years aboard, she angrily fends off leers in a culture still suspicious of independent women. She helps the foreigner with a translation, and he offers her a lift to her brother’s apartment, but only when they cross paths at a reception in the capital city do we find out that the beautiful background landscape is in Armenia (this is the first American feature filmed in that country), or even their names.
They are not the usual road movie companions. Bespectacled and bearded young Will Shepard (Ben Foster) has been always been seeking “the edge of the world,” and she is the older and more experienced photographer Gadarine Najarian (Lubna Azabal). But even she is intrigued that he’s heading into the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, close by Azerbaijan and Iran. He maps the area’s potential development following electric transmission lines, and she leads him past herds, ancient monasteries, Soviet-era housing blocks, and into her own life by taking him back home to her parents and vodka-drinking friends she hasn’t seen in years. During the journey, Gadarine resents identifying herself as Will’s guide and translator to get across the border, and he becomes frustrated over his failing assignment. Nevertheless, he tucks Polaroids of her on the dashboard, creating a resonant map of their time together. (The DVD bonus features include all the photographs, most taken by director/visual artist Braden King.)
Different impressions come through from seeing this seductive film first in a theater and then on DVD. On the big screen, the majestic landscape framed by looming mountains dominates the two searching souls. As magnetic as the couple’s attraction was on the big screen, especially when she takes him “off the map” to a rocky grotto for a sensual swimming interlude, the trajectory of their relationship can be seen more closely on the DVD through their intense, mostly nonverbal performances. Her bristling at his possessive concern (“You’re not my brother or father. You have no right to a lover’s quarrel”) now seems less manipulated for script purposes. Foster is at his most compelling since The Messenger (2009), while Azabal, who has played various ethnicities over the past few years, blooms even more into a contemporary Anna Magnani, commanding attention (let alone raising the bar for a male co-star) with sultry intelligence.
King sets their relationship, a bit pretentiously, within an overall theme of explorers through several interludes narrated by “The Storyteller” (Peter Coyote), opening with lines such as “Scientists and dreamers froze infinite earth in slivers,” and rhapsodizing at the end about “a blank spot in every atlas in every roaming heart.” The poetic romanticism strained to be followed above and in relation to the montage of crackly images, and gave me a headache in the theater, but they are more intriguing seen separately on the DVD, where the diverse imagery, that ranges from the historical to the abstract, can be seen more clearly and is more haunting. The complete selection of eight short films by international avant-garde filmmakers and the found footage from an old movie theater in the region that King excerpted for the interludes are all available in full as a bonus feature.