Shlomi (Ido Tako) is an easy person to empathise with. Whom amongst us wouldn’t take the chance to run away from fighting in the IDF with both hands? In an early gripping scene — filled with tense long takes, and careful tracking camera movements — he sneaks out of a house, steals a car and hightails it out of the Gaza Strip. I’d do the same.
But he is not escaping for moral reasons, or even cowardice. He is escaping for love, to convince his girlfriend, Shiri (Mika Reiss), to stay with him in Isreal as opposed to moving to Canada. Risking prison, death and international controversy, we follow The Vanishing Soldier (Dani Rosenberg, 2023) over frantic 24 hours in Tel Aviv, creating both a character portrait of a rather silly man and of a unique nation constantly in a state of war.
Part of Isreal’s allure — and propaganda machine — is the rich cultural heritage the only Jewish state in the world has. People obsessed with food, from felafel to fish, with Middle-Eastern, Ethiopian and Ashkenazi influences; an LGBT-positive nightlife scene; beautiful beaches, monuments and architecture. The Vanishing Soldier immerses us into the amazing Tel Aviv, the Berlin of the Middle East, through endless shots of Shlomi hurriedly cycling around, showing a modern, vibrant city that’s probably one of the most exciting places to live. If you can get used to the bomb sirens.
One scene encapsulates the paradoxical nature of modern Israeli life best. A restaurant-turned-nightclub blasts David Guetta and Sia’s “Titanium” at top volume. People are dancing, drinking, talking. But another sound finds its way in: the two-tone scream of an alarm. This is where Shiri, a sou-chef, works. She might make the best pancakes in the city, but she’d rather cook poutine (with maple syrup?) in Canada, where basically nothing ever happens. More curious is Shlomi’s plans for staying in the country, given that he is now essentially a fugitive. And as the army could never countenance anyone running away on purpose, he is presumed to have been kidnapped, causing international controversy. It’s a lot for one film to set up; The Vanishing Soldier fails to deliver on that promise.
Mixing together elements of satire, broad comedy, critique, serious drama and even thriller elements, this competition film aims to do too much and is unable to settle on a consistent tone. And while the relatively fresh Tako brings a solid quiet desperation to every scene, his eyes always working overtime on his ultimate goal, this type of balancing act needs a much higher level of acting, or directing, to keep all those elements running simultaneously. It’s certainly true that Israel is a place in a semi-permanent state of nationalist lunacy — but The Vanishing Soldier can’t craft the incendiary thesis statement it needs to be relevant. Therefore, instead of political cinema, we get the picaresque, a collection of enjoyable scenes, but nothing major to hold onto. It’s all smoulder. Smoke but no flame.