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“What’s terrible is how people don’t care,” laments a European Union aid worker about the dire straits of Chechens during the 1999 Russian invasion, and it’s the impulse to alter this situation that drives The Search, Michel Hazanavicius’ first feature since his unlikely triumph with The Artist three years ago. Coincidentally quite timely in the wake of recent Russian moves on its neighbors, the writer-director’s first full-on drama attempts to present a mosaic portrait of the suffering in a region little-known or understood by the world, hence the perceived lack of concern. The result is vivid when focusing on those directly involved in the war but laborious when devoted to the fretful hand-wringing of do-gooder outsider characters, which is a lot of the time. The film’s accidental current relevance could well boost its profile upon release later this year, but making a commercial success of this outside of Europe will be an uphill struggle.
The new film is inspired by Fred Zinnemann’s 1948 drama, about a boy separated from his mother after liberation from a concentration camp and the help he received from an American G.I., played by Montgomery Clift, to try to adjust amid Germany’s ruins. Screenwriters Richard Schweizer and David Wechsler won an Academy Award for best story and a Czech youngster, Ivan Jandl, won a special juvenile Oscar for his work.
Russians, to be sure, won’t be thrilled by the way they’re pictured here, beginning with the blunt opening sequence, in which a real-time video shows young army thugs taunting and finally shooting a Chechen man and woman with no provocation; Russians now will have to get used to being depicted as bad guys in the same fashion as Americans did during Vietnam. Hiding during the needless violence is the couple’s 9-year-old son Hadji (Abdul-Khalim Marmatsuiev), a round-faced, big-cheeked kid with more than a passing resemblance to Jandl in the original film.
The boy scurries from one spot to another, including a detention camp and an attempted interview with Helen (Annette Bening), an American woman in charge of the Red Cross’s efforts on behalf of refugee children, which goes nowhere because he won’t speak a word. Eventually making a tentative connection with him, however, is EU human rights commission representative Carole (Berenice Bejo), who offers him a sandwich, begins yacking at him in non-stop French and soon takes him to her apartment, where he continues to be unresponsive.
At the same time, Hadji’s older sister Raissa (Zukhra Duishvili) has taken over the care of her baby brother as well as the daunting task of trying to find her older one.
Fanning out wider still, the film’s attention also falls upon a 19-year-old Russian musician, Kolia (Maxim Emelianov), who, caught smoking weed on the street , is arrested and ushered straight into the army, where he’s systematically brutalized through training, hazing and beatings to the point of becoming a hardened killing machine capable of any barbarism. Following not only the dramatic trajectory from boot camp to battle but the long-take, moving camera shooting style of Full Metal Jacket, the scenes devoted to the maniacally boorish Russian soldiers, who are particularly fond of denigrating the objects of their scorn as gay in the most colorful language available to them, are the most lively, as well as shocking, in the film. By the end, Kolia’s transformation seems complete, a total success according to the standards and needs of the military.
By comparison, the scenes with the foreign aid workers are windy, platitudinous, repetitive, familiar and not always very dramatic. For whatever one wants to make of it, the forces for good in the film are all embodied by women and here what they mostly do is talk, to varying effect.
To her credit, after endless prattling, Carole finally gets traumatized little Hadji to speak up. But her lamentations about inaction by the international community on behalf of the Chechens seem to fall on mostly deaf ears, and both she and Helen have to admit that their valiant work represents nothing but an uphill struggle in which they can win some small battles but perhaps not the war.
One piece of the composite portrait of this vexing conflict seems missing. We see the invaders, the incidental and innocent victims of combat and the high-minded foreigners who toil to help the latter. What we don’t see, and scarcely hear mention of, are the Chechen rebels/terrorists, the faction that spurred Russian action or over-reaction, in the first place. Even if the filmmakers didn’t feel inclined to depict them, it might have behooved them to have everyday Chechens as well as the foreigners reference them, positively or negatively, to at least make them a presence and a factor in the tragedy .
Where the film most succeeds is in the physical representation of a conflict of which the world public has a meager visual impression. Shooting in Georgia alongside the Caucasus Mountains, Hazanavicius and his highly resourceful cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman have worked in muted but still sharply defined colors, as well as with what appear to be mostly handheld cameras, to achieve a somber yet vitally immediate look. Thanks also to outstanding work by production designer Emile Ghigo and well-chosen locations, the crowded city scenes, detention centers and army barracks reek with the feel, sounds and discomfort of humanity pressed into unnaturally tight quarters; there are few moments of calm to provide even brief relief from the strain. Humor is allowed to break through in isolated moments like brief shafts of light through heavy clouds, but this overwhelmingly a grim affair, as well as heavy and overlong; some trimming, by perhaps 15-20 minutes, might be considered.
Another problem is the one-dimensionality of the characters. The years of experience, of battles won and lost, are evident on Bening’s face here and there is no need to know more about her old pro on the international battle front. But Bejo’s self-serious humanitarian campaigner is a bit of a pain in her lack of self-awareness, as well as the absence of any aspects of her life other than professional; she has no known past, relationships or interests other than for her cause.
Young Mamatsuiev is eminently watchable as the kid, while Emelianov transitions in excellent fashion from a rather soft, formless late teen to an enthusiastic killer.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (in competition)
Opens: November 26 (France–Warner Bros.)
Production: La Petite Reine, La Classe Americaine, France 3 Cinema, Orange Studio, Wild Bunch, Search Production, Sarke Studio/GFIG
Cast: Berenice Bejo, Annette Bening, Maxim Emelianov, Zukhra Duishvili, Abdul-Khalim Mamatsuiev
Director: Michel Hazanavicius
Screenwriter: Michel Hazanavicius, inspired by the film “The Search” (1948)
Producers: Thomas Langmann, Michel Hazanavicius
Director of photography: Guillaume Schiffman
Production designer: Emile Ghigo
Costume designer: Les Rincali
Editors: Anne-Sophie Bion, Michel Hazanavicius
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