Movies revolving around a mysterious disappearance reliably generate intrigue, whether or not they ultimately prove satisfying as an actual mystery. Sometimes, the film provides an answer to what happened to the missing character(s)—even if, as in The Vanishing, it’s decidedly not the answer (nor the means of revelation) that the long-searching protagonist wants. Other classics, like L’Avventura and Picnic At Hanging Rock,deliberately eschew any sort of resolution, leaving both the nature of events and their meaning open to interpretation. Neither Heaven Nor Earth, the feature debut of French filmmaker Clément Cogitore, falls into the latter category. Set among soldiers stationed in Afghanistan, near the Pakistani border, this virtually action-free war movie (which premiered at Cannes last year with the English-language title The Wakhan Front) will frustrate anyone seeking concrete explanations. Its haunting atmosphere, however, in conjunction with its half-harrowing, half-sleepy milieu, keeps the film fascinating until it finally fizzles.
There’s a Clerks-style “We’re not even supposed to be here!” dynamic at work, right from the start—not just because these grunts aren’t sure why they’re in Afghanistan, but because they’re expressly waiting to be pulled out, as part of a NATO-determined withdrawal. For Captain Bonassieu (played by Dardennes brothers fixture Jérémie Renier), just keeping the troops’ spirits up in the face of general lassitude represents a daily challenge. When two of his men go missing during a night watch, however, the sense of purpose that ensues quickly gives way to befuddlement. Searches and interrogations of the locals reveal no sign that the missing soldiers were killed or abducted. They’re just… gone. Some Taliban soldiers in the same rough location have apparently likewise vanished, also at night. Eventually, as his unit keeps getting inexplicably smaller, Bonassieu finds himself so stressed out that he has himself monitored by a remote camera feed while he sleeps, in the hope that doing so might provide physical evidence of what’s going on.