​Review: "Neither Heaven Nor Earth," a supernatural war film

A French company commander (Jérémie Renier) faces an unseen, possibly supernatural threat at his Afghanistan outpost in the drama "Neither Heaven Nor Earth."

Film Movement

In "Neither Heaven Nor Earth (Ni le ciel ni la terre)," the paranoia experienced by soldiers in Afghanistan becomes a window into a metaphysical tale of survival in a truly hostile environment: a supernatural war zone.

The film burrows into the increasingly unsettled minds of a company of French soldiers assigned to a remote outpost near the Pakistan border. Captain Bonassieu (Jérémie Renier) maintains command of his men with a steely determination. He and his company try to stay vigilant to determine possible threats from locals or incursions from Taliban fighters, but they cannot understand the mysterious actions of Afghans who sacrifice goats in the darkness or skirt their territory while claiming to herd sheep.

The soldiers' uneasiness over unseen enemies ignites into fear as members of the company vanish, one by one.

Convinced the missing soldiers have been kidnapped, Captain Bonassieu leads unsuccessful searches through the neighboring town. What's more, Taliban fighters who constantly test the porous border inform Bonassieu that they, too, have lost men in the valley, leading to an uneasy alliance to try to find the missing.

Morale crumbles, as does Bonassieu's control over the situation, when the only explanation offered by locals is a sobering one: that the valley is cursed. Intruders who are considered an affront to God, they say, are "disappeared" when they sleep.

The film marks the impressive debut of director and co-writer Clément Cogitore, who uses effective cinematography and sound to conjure what is one of the very few examples of the horror-war genre, in which well-armed and trained soldiers confront the supernatural. Cogitore even blends in the sub-genre of found-footage horror films, as video surveillance cameras are set up to try to detect why a soldier goes missing.

A prize-winner at last year's Cannes Film Festival, "Neither Heaven Nor Earth" is an unsettling view of the particular mindset of soldiers asked to understand and react to circumstances beyond their training or experience. At risk are cohesion among the men and trust in their leaders amidst questions of faith and redemption. Is this instability really the product of a supernatural or religious power, or is it the clever result of locals seeking to shake off an occupying force?

To its credit, the film's existential question does not easily resolve itself, as in a "Twilight Zone" episode where the source of mystery is reduced to an ironic twist ending or a pun. After all, the inexplicable is inexplicable for a reason.

Instead, the twist at the end -- and at the film's heart -- comes from an act of self-sacrifice and duplicity that connotes common human decency, targeting the very inhumanity that typically thrives in a war zone.

"Neither Heaven Nor Earth," distributed by Film Movement, opens theatrically in New York City on Friday, August 5, and in Los Angeles on August 12, before opening nationwide. In French and Farsi with English subtitles. The film is not rated.

To watch a trailer click on the video player below.

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  • David Morgan

    David Morgan is a senior editor at CBSNews.com and cbssundaymorning.com.