As a follow-up to his ode to the silent era, Oscar winner The Artist, French director Hazanavicius sure as hell couldn’t have chosen a more different project than The Search. An adaptation of the 1948 Fred Zinnemann film of the same title, the action is moved to the Second Chechen War at the end of the millennium, weaving three strands together into an at times grim, and at other times sappy tale of small human victories on the smoking piles of war.
The first strand, and arguably the most central one, follows Hadji, a young Chechen boy (a heartbreaking performance by Abdul-Khalim Mamatsuiev) who witnesses the murder of his parents at the hands of Russian soldiers pillaging his village. He flees with his just-born nephew, but soon realizes that keeping the infant around is not going to work, so he lays him on a porch in the next village. Eventually, he finds his way out of the war zone, and into the hands of Carole (Bérénice Bejo, in a dual-language performance), a representative of the Human Rights Commission of the EU. Touched by the young boy’s solemn vulnerability, she takes him into her home, and they slowly develop a relationship.
In the meantime, Hadji’s sister Raïssa manages to escape the Russians as well, and goes in search of her son and brother. She manages to track down her child, but finding Hadji proves more problematic. She, too, finds her way to safety, in this case a refugee shelter run by weary aid-worker Helen (played by Annette Bening).
The third arc of the film is dedicated to Kolia, a nineteen-year-old plucked from the streets of Perm (far removed from Chechnya) for smoking a spliff, and pushed into army recruitment as a form of punishment. He soon learns that only bullies survive in this hostile environment: after constant physical and verbal abuse at the hands of both equals and superiors, he finally gains respect from his comrades when he beats a fellow recruit to a pulp. Assigned to the front lines, he is soon exposed to and guilty of the atrocities committed by the Russian military in their ostensible ‘war on Chechnyan terrorism’, which in reality was more an act of ethnic cleansing. Given the present Crimean situation, even though Russia is currently still standing off, the film’s central conflict is oddly apropos, even if the events depicted were fifteen years ago.
At two and a half hours, Hazanavicius sure takes his sweet time to tell his story. One can’t help but wonder if a little (or better: a lot of) editing would have helped the film’s pacing, and also made it more focused. As it stands, it is a strange amalgam of raw, gritty reality check about war, and feel-good tearjerker story. The harsh realities are most on display in the Kolia storyline, and at the beginning of Hadji’s tale. The heart-tugging comes when Carole and Hadji team up, and their scenes in the safety of her apartment almost play as if they are from a different film altogether. The final resolution, the titular search by Raïssa for her brother Hajdi, is straight from the TV movie playbook, near misses and all. The connection to Kolia’s tale is revealed near the end of the film, and while a bit contrived, is a neat feat of storytelling by Hazanavicius (who also wrote the screenplay). Since Kolia’s portrayal is mildly positive it constitutes a reminder that a lot of the kids (because that is really what they still are) who commit these atrocities are the product of a much larger machination. Sure, they share the blame, but much of the blood they spill is also on the hands of their leaders.
And The Search doesn’t mince meat here: at one point in the film, Carole returns to Brussels to deliver an impassioned plea for a strong statement from the EU on the war, directly blaming not only then-president Boris Jeltsin, but also his deputy at the time, the current president Vladimir Putin. It is a bold political stance for a major film like this to take, and again, given the current situation surrounding Crimea and Ukraine, a strong indictment of Russian imperialism. This is not a film that will do well in Russia, that’s for sure (in reality, it will probably never be shown there).
The problem is that elsewhere the film often becomes very heavy-handed, and pounds its messages into the audience. Discussions between Carole and Helen fall just short of didactic treatises on saint-like figures like themselves and look-the-other-way bureaucrats in the European Parliament. The cynical depiction of Carole’s fruitless trip to Brussels is heartfelt and in all probability accurate, but could have been less spelt out, both through dialogue and visually. Anyone who takes more than a casual interest in situations like this knows that politicians in this regard are often ineffective, risk-avoiding and too bureaucratic to take action before it’s too late; we don’t need Michel Hazanavicius to tell us that. An early tweet after the screening by Dave Calhoun said that he wouldn’t be surprised if Bono was a producer on the film, and that remark is right on the money. The film is powerful at times and has its heart in the right place, but it has a tendency to be preachy and rings false too often. Performances are apt, but Bejo in particular struggles with her English dialogue, which because of its message-pounding is not natural in the first place. Between the acting heavyweights of Bejo and Bening, it is actually the young Mamatsuiev who delivers the most resonant performance as a boy traumatized by war, a fragile kid slowly opening up. The film’s most powerful scene, his Hadji dancing on his own to the Bee Gees (of all things), belongs to this young discovery who could be a dark horse for the Best Actor award here in Cannes. For other prizes, look elsewhere.