Review: NEITHER HEAVEN NOR EARTH, An Unusual, Effective Metaphysical Thriller Set In Afghanistan
Neither Heaven Nor Earth is an effective, minimalistic metaphysical thriller set in a battlefield of Afghanistan from a French visual artist/filmmaker, Clément Cogitore, in his feature film debut.
It tells about French soldiers stationed in the Wakhan valley, an arid, remote mountain somewhere in Afghanistan, headed by Capt. Antares (The Dardennes Bros. regular Jérémie Renier). Through an army interpreter, they are keeping an uneasy relationship with nearby village folks, mostly sheep herders whom they are supposedly protecting from Taliban elements.
First it's Antares's trusty German Shepherd, then two soldiers who were keeping the watch on the top of the south hill, who disappear without a trace one day. The platoon goes on a full alert; it could be the untrustworthy villagers who ominously keep leaving sacrificial lamb tied to a stake nearby or it could be enemy combatants' doing. The paranoia overtakes the post. Antares, a man of reason, tries to keep everything together until another soldier gets taken right in front of an already paranoid soldier who's expecting a baby back home any day.
Then there is another unexpected development. A Taliban leader in the region, known as Sultan, wants to negotiate with Antares, assuming the French troops have their men, who also disappeared. After initial confusion, Antares OK's Sultan and his men's safe passage, despite objections from the soldiers, to the village where they ransack the place in vain, looking for their men. So after that, it is pretty clear that it wasn't Taliban nor the villagers who took the soldiers. There are some other forces that is in the works. The relationship between the village and French soldiers gets even more strained.
The villagers who are caught on crossfire, finally speak up about the place soldiers are disappearing. It is a sacred ground, known as Allah's Valley. People and animals have been disappearing if they fall asleep on the ground. It's been happening long before the soldiers came. Soldiers report strange dreams where all the missing people are sleeping in a cave. After sending an unhelpful military chaplain home, equipped with night vision goggles and thermal detection cameras and with an unlikely aliance with the Sultan, Antares tries to get to the bottom of the phenomena.
It's hard to believe the war in Afghanistan is still going on after 15 years. The Middle-East is a clusterfuck and the world is in total chaos, thanks to the destablizing effects of the whole region unequivocally caused by the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. With Neither Heaven Nor Earth, Cogitore creates an intriguing allegory of an unwinnable war.
The film is a beautifully drawn, almost religious allegory that suggests there is a higher power looking down on us. Thankfully, Cogitore doesn't take the preachy route to do so. The film works well as a thriller, while its feet are firmly planted in real situations, with some striking symbolism thrown in.
Neither Heaven Nor Earth is an unusual, elegant Afghan war thriller that gets its message across and even gives a salute to the hardworking military servicemen without any heavy political rhetoric.
Neither Heaven Nor Earth opens on Friday, August 5 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center with other cities to follow.
Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions on everything cinema and beyond can be found at www.dustinchang.com