Neither Heaven Nor Earth (ND/NF Review)
The war in Afghanistan gets a supernatural twist with Clément Cogitore’s Neither Heaven Nor Earth, a military drama about soldiers confronting the unknown while stationed at the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. It’s 2014 and the war is winding down, leaving Captain Antares (Jérémie Renier) and his men with little to do until they’re called back home. They’re stationed in a remote valley called Wakhan, where the villagers don’t like them and enemy soldiers hide in the surrounding desert. It all looks like business as usual for the soldiers, until one night when two men vanish without a trace. Antares launches a search, thinking they might have gotten lost or injured, but then another soldier disappears. And then another. And then the group of Taliban soldiers they’ve been fighting offer a ceasefire so they can look for their own men, who have also been disappearing one by one.
At a point where the plot should thicken, Cogitore decides to let things peter out instead, preferring to focus on Antares’ stubborn skepticism (when one soldier describes what’s happening as inexplicable, Antares says that they just haven’t found the explanation yet). Cogitore fails to convincingly portray Antares’ switch from skeptic to believer, and his refusal to provide any resolution about the mysterious disappearances becomes annoying as a result. If Cogitore doesn’t want to give any answers, then his questions should have enough substance to carry the film’s weight, which turns out not to be the case when watching Antares’ crisis play out in a dull, familiar fashion (at one point, Cogitore throws in a nod to Claire Denis’ Beau Travail that only serves as a reminder of better films already out there dealing with similar subject matter). And when hints of something more to the film pop up, like the vanishings acting as a symbol for the soldiers’ fears and anxieties, they get lost in Cogitore’s muddle. Despite its strong cast and impressive cinematography (courtesy of Sylvain Verdet, who makes good use out of the soldiers’ night-vision cameras), Neither Heaven Nor Earth only winds up squandering its great premise.
Neither Heaven Nor Earth screens as part of New Directors/New Films in New York City. To learn more about the festival or buy tickets, visit www.newdirectors.org.