Neither Heaven Nor Earth

****

Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

Ni Le Ciel, Ni La Terre
"It is when Neither Heaven Nor Earth ventures into the unexplainable that it brings us closest to the concrete battlefield."

In the Sufi version of the Seven Sleepers, readers are cautioned to not be concerned by numbers. How many men slept for how many hundreds of years in the cave is insignificant. One sleeping dog guards them and meaning is to be found elsewhere about the "undone of the heavens and earth".

Clément Cogitore's startling debut feature starts out with a dog - named Goliath - who leads us to a group of French soldiers stationed in a remote mountain region in Afghanistan, at the Wakhan Front. Captain Antarès Bonassieu (Jérémie Renier) and his men are positioned near the border to Pakistan to monitor the "calm" region.

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Neither Heaven Nor Earth (Ni Le Ciel Ni La Terre) features a powerful ensemble cast. At times, a different culture can seem like a different planet; at others, it feels even closer than our own. Sâm Mirhosseini plays Khalil Khan as the other end of the spectrum from the interpreter Nanni Moretti invented to help out his vain movie star Barry Huggins (John Turturro) in Mia Madre. We depend on the translator as much as Captain Bonassieu does.

Negotiations with the shepherds of the village the squad are said to protect from fires and the rule of the Taliban, headed by a man they call the Sultan (Hamid Reza Javdan), are complicated by the gradual disappearance of men from each side. They are gone without a trace, as is Goliath.

Images (shot by Sylvain Verdet) of magnetic, eerie beauty transport us to the mysterious middle ground where Cogitore places his story, written in collaboration with Les Cowboys director Thomas Bidegain. Observed through night-vision goggles, the mountain landscape looks like the moon. A flashlight stuck in the shirt pocket becomes the bright green carnation of a dancer's lapel.

Golden heat foil is cleverly used to manipulate the interpretation of what seeing is believing means. Individuals roam the stark mountains - toy figures in the nightly landscape, flashes of light, a moving shadow. It is a terrain where the terrifying uncertainties of war meet a painterly serenity to tackle metaphysical questions that are thousands of years old. Ultimately, Neither Heaven Nor Earth is grappling with the impossibility of comprehending death.

Great anti-war films may come to mind, from Nicholas Ray's Bitter Victory to Stanley Kubrick's Paths Of Glory. Patrick Mercier (Finnegan Oldfield) checking for mines has as much tension as Anthony Minghella's brilliant The English Patient, based on Michael Ondaatje's novel. When he finds a dead goat with horns, it might be the devil. It is when Neither Heaven Nor Earth ventures into the unexplainable that it brings us closest to the concrete battlefield.

The war and the unexplained disappearances have taken their toll on each one in a different way. Swann Arlaud's Jérémie Lernowski, the light on his face turning his features into a kabuki mask, believes that something extraordinary has begun, that "it has started" and "He is taking us back one by one." Earthly rules collide with the heavens. It is a boy (Aria Faghih Habibi) from the village who explains how special this land is - "this is the spot where Allah forgives" and we hear that "men with sheep don't count."

The juxtapositions provided by Isabelle Manquillet's editing are never more enlightening than when a sermon by the flown-in chaplain (Steve Tientcheu) is followed by a nighttime dance by Bax, one of the soldiers (Clément Bresson). The eyes tattooed on his back have the power of the lapis lazuli ones in the statue of Ebih-Il from the 25th century B.C.. Entertaining the troops into a trance - what else exactly did Bob Hope and Marlene Dietrich do? This is no USO tour.

Metaphors are laid out for the taking - or leaving. This is a psychological war film and also a tale of sheep and men. The man of God who arrived in a helicopter that resembled a giant insect descending is instructed that this is a "delicate mission." "Benedictions are for the dead," the captain earlier informed William Denis (Kévin Azaïs), whose wife Sarah (voiced by Chloé Astor) is expecting their first child at home in France.

Cogitore tells of soldiers in crisis. While their bodies stay (mainly) intact, something inside them - the mind, the soul - is broken, or if you will, mended from beyond. When civilisations meet, there is room for more than the sum of their parts. "This isn't Kabul," we are told, and as much as we want to get information - How many miles away? How many men disappeared? - it is the other kind of question we are led to ask in "Allah's land".

Reviewed on: 03 Aug 2016
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Neither Heaven Nor Earth packshot
French soldiers in Afghanistan are faced with unexpected circumstances.

Festivals:

Cannes 2015
NDNF 2016

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