Locarno 2023 review: The Vanishing Soldier (Dani Rosenberg)

“Rosenberg is clever enough to sell the teenaged chivalry initially, draping Shlomi’s episodic journey of advancement and evasion in comedic but dark overtures.”

Infrared pulses wash the silhouettes of an infantry unit in streams and streaks as the mundane tasks of preparing makeshift meals and sharing a smoke are illuminated. Even as a battle grinds somewhere outside this military-occupied house, a crouched line of uniformed privates collapse, in silence, emotion peeled from faces like paint chips tearing from the wall bracing them. In time, the regiment shuffles off on orders, leaving behind this ordinary Gaza home in disarray, suspended in the present like a page from a nightmare interior design catalogue. One soldier remains as the others depart, however. When his solitude is confirmed, the young man snaps from his daze, and Dani Rosenberg’s engaging The Vanishing Soldier crackles into attention.

Shlomi (Ido Tako) flees his conscribed service, darting through rounds of relentlessly routine warfare with movements more tactical than preordained. It’s lackadaisical but committed game play out of occupied lands towards the shimmering citadel of Tel Aviv only a few kilometers up the road. The 18-year-old, with youthful but weary zest, convinces himself his actions are cavalier, driven by desire to see his girlfriend Shiri (Mika Reiss); she is soon to leave for Canada and the clock winds towards that departure. Director Dani Rosenberg is clever enough to sell the teenaged chivalry initially, draping Shlomi’s episodic journey of advancement and evasion in comedic but dark overtures.

It’s business as usual in the metropolis, Tel Aviv, its beaches speckled with oblivious tourists, and bars and restaurants bustling with condescending patrons. Shiri is an apprentice chef in one such eatery. She and Shlomi plan to rendezvous when her shift ends, so he evades any unwanted attention for a few hours leading up to their reunion. From the edges of the Mediterranean Sea to his grandmother’s home, then into the center of the city, he bounces, scrappy and wide-eyed. Soon, however, he discovers his father has suffered a heart attack and detours to find him.

The hospital clicks with the ordinariness of mortality, bombing injuries as routine as cardiac ailments. His father will recover but Shlomi is still in jeopardy. With a hushed revelation of desertion to his mother (a terrific, masterful Efrat Ben Tzur), The Vanishing Soldier expands in multiple directions, bursting like a heart. Or a missile. Lackeys from the Israeli Defense Forces soon reach out to his mom, revealing their belief her son has been captured by militant Palestinians; of course, she knows better and can only gasp, suppressing laughter as it collides into frustrations and sighs. It’s a remarkable emotional ripple from the actress, an intersection of the confounding daily chaos in a never-ending military campaign against the façade of peaceful modernity. Dani Rosenberg’s framing of the simplistic, bureaucratic interaction of a mother and representatives of the military, her son observing protocol unseen from afar, is approached with the kinetic spark of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, and this film pivots on the moment.

Foreign tourists can lounge at the shores of glistening waters, drunken patrons can drape across a bar, all with opinions on conflict and service because it’s modern Israel that is shellshocked. Dani Rosenberg frames his cautionary and pointed observations through the conscription of a Hebrew teenager swiftly deteriorating as his focus disappears, all in the face of social applause that praises sacrifice with shallow heralds and hoorays. Ido Tako as Shlomi, in a magnetic central performance, is the everyman of one Israeli filmmaker’s perspective: vital enough to wage a war on his back but disposable enough to be misplaced in unending conflict. In The Vanishing Soldier, society wears transparent fatigues, too, fading into desertion, willingly oblivious even as sirens distort routines and the commonplace glory of peace disintegrates.