Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Mar 01, 2016 6:28 pm 
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Metaphysical thriller set in the Afghan front starring Jérémie Renier

A Cannes review by Guy Lodge in [url=""]Variety[/url] of this new film starring the durable Belgian actor Jérémie Renier suggests that the French director Clément Cogitore's original debut revives the already seemingly exhausted Afghan soldier portrait genre. Cogitore describes it as "a blend of John Ford and M. Knight Shyamalan." But Lodge also thought of Antonioni's L'Avventura, because it's the mysterious disappearance of some of his men that causes the protagonist, Capitaine Antarès Bonassieu, to gradually lose his authority and his mental grip.

We are in the same realm as Tobials Lindstrom's current Oscar nominated A War, though that film has more vivid and extended battle sequences. We're in similar territory to the twin Afghan war documentaries Restrepo and Korengal -- the western soldiers high up in the rocky hillsides, isolated, bored, working out, calling home, having periodic meetings with village men, armed with an interpreter (this one, played by Sâm Mirhosseini, is particularly strong and essential); the quarrels over sheep; the clashes with Afghans; the ever-present danger of the Taliban.

And I always want to ask: Why? What are these western soldiers doing here, constantly at risk? What makes authorities think they're essential? But those questions rarely come up in these films. In any case, here the NATO-led troops are being withdrawn, so they're basically waiting around and trying, unsuccessfully as it turns out, to stay out of trouble. Here the question isn't Why? but What the hell is going on? And there's never a very good answer. One of the themes is how macho men may go haywire long confined together, a theme memorably treated in Claire Denis's classic Beau Travail. Another is the union of enemies, since it turns out that not only the French unit but the local Taliban have been mysteriously losing men -- and they wind up involved in a strange collaboration. As the Captain grows unhinged by his disappearing men, he begins to think the answer lies in dreams.

I didn't find Neither Heaven Nor Earth fully satisfying, because it doesn't explore either war or metaphysics enough, but Cogitore uses the Moroccan locations and appropriate mise-en-scène well, and the fine cast includes Swann Arlaud of de Pallières' Michael Kohlhass, the lean, intense young Kévin Azaïs of Love at First Fight, and the recently ubiquitous Finnegan Oldfield, a "Meilleur Espoir" César nominee this year featured in Bang Gang and Les Cowboys -- the latter the directorial debut of Jacque Audiard script collaborator Thomas Bidegain, who performed similar duties here.

Neither Heaven Nor Earth/Ni le ciel ni la terre, aka The Wakhan Front, 100 mins., debuted in Cannes Critics' Week May 2015 and has been included in eight other festivals, including New Directors/New Films in New York, where it was screened for this review 1 Mar. 2016. Released in Sept. 2015 in France it received enthusiastic reviews (AlloCiné press rating 3.8 averaged from 28 reviews). Cahiers concluded that Cogitoren is a director worth watching, and several reviewers said the film was captivating "from beginning to end."

Opens on Friday, August 5, 2016 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

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