“I want this to be a picture of dignity — a true canvas of the suffering of humanity!” So declared the comedy-director hero of Preston Sturges’ classic “Sullivan’s Travels,” and his fit of self-importance may well enlighten viewers as they ponder why Oscar-winning director Michel Hazanavicius has decided to follow the deft, effervescent charms of “The Artist” with “The Search,” a grueling, lumbering, two-and-a-half-hour humanitarian tract that all but collapses under the weight of its own moral indignation. Intermittently stirring and undeniably well made as it slowly unspools a multi-pronged drama set during the 1999 outbreak of the Second Chechen War, the picture has run-of-the-mill pacing and storytelling lapses that are compounded by its ultimately hectoring, didactic approach. Significant trims, and perhaps key restorations from a reportedly longer cut, could improve its chances for widespread theatrical export, though its search for a receptive audience is destined to be a hard one.
Hazanavicius’ screenplay draws its inspiration from Fred Zinnemann’s 1948 film of the same title, which starred Montgomery Clift as an American soldier who comes to the aid of a young Auschwitz survivor looking for his mother across a post-WWII landscape. In transferring the story to the front lines of the Russian invasion of Chechnya, a counter-terrorist operation that quickly devolved into a bloodbath and claimed thousands of civilian lives, Hazanavicius clearly means to shed light on a recent conflict that has been addressed by relatively few documentary and narrative filmmakers, while updating a straightforward, emotionally effective drama with as much contemporary verisimilitude as possible.
To that end, “The Search” opens with a duly horrifying five-minute prologue shot on handheld video from the perspective of a Russian soldier, who watches as his goonish cohorts murder a couple (whom they jokingly refer to as “terrorists”) in the town of Nazran, located about 21 miles from the Chechen border. Fearfully observing the whole scene from a nearby window is the couple’s 9-year-old son, Hadji (Abdul-Khalim Mamatsuiev), who manages to escape on foot with his infant brother, whom he leaves on the doorstep of one of the few houses that hasn’t been reduced to fiery rubble in the wake of the Russian onslaught. Eventually, and with the help of a few kind souls amid a great throng of hungry, exhausted and grief-stricken refugees, Hadji makes his way to an orphanage run by an American, Helen (Annette Bening), who tries but fails to learn his name and the details of his story. Understandably and irrevocably scarred by his experience, Hadji has become completely mute and unresponsive, unable to do much more than eat, sleep and fix the camera with his wounded, forlorn stare.
Of course, as he demonstrated in “The Artist,” Hazanavicius is a director who can work wonders with silence, and while Hadji’s story has no shortage of precedents in the long tradition of orphan-centric tearjerkers, the director’s sensitive and attentive treatment of his child subject sustains our sympathy and interest easily enough. Indeed, it’s when “The Search” opens its mouth that it begins to go astray, revealing, in its grand, overarching structure and transparently obvious dialogue, an unimpeachable but fatally heavy-handed message about the desperate need for global awareness and empathy through action.
Working hard to make sure the Chechen people know “the world hasn’t forgotten them” is Carole (Berenice Bejo, the director’s wife and star of “The Artist”), a French-born, Chechnya-based NGO worker who writes detailed reports on the crisis unfolding all around her in hopes that the United Nations’ foreign affairs committee will be moved to intervene. Carole cares a great deal more than most, but her activism could apparently stand to be even more nobly directed, as becomes evident when she crosses paths with Hadji near the orphanage and, moved with compassion, decides to let him stay with her.
But the boy proves a more difficult project than she expected, holding stubbornly onto his silence (he doesn’t say a word until the film’s 90-minute mark), and only gradually revealing glimmers of warmth, trust and gratitude in response to Carole’s friendly but sometimes impatient gestures of kindness. And so this surrogate parent-child bond advances along conventionally moving lines, aided by occasional advice from Helen, who doesn’t realize that Hadji is the boy that Carole has taken in. If she did, she would surely have informed Hadji’s older sister, Raissa (Zukhra Duishvili), whose desperate, lonely search for her brother furnishes a key parallel subplot here.
Still another narrative thread — the one farthest removed from the rest of the story, and easily the most dispensable — concerns the fate of Kolia (Maxim Emelianov), a Russian youth who is arrested for drug possession and drafted into army service, where he undergoes a “Full Metal Jacket”-style baptism by violence and becomes another dehumanized killing machine. The extreme attention paid to the details of Kolia’s ordeal — the homophobic slurs and hazing rituals, the physical and verbal abuse dished out by military superiors, the need to prove one’s worthiness by committing hideous acts of brutality — proves emblematic of Hazanavicius’ determination to not only provide as comprehensive a view of the conflict as possible, but also to put a human face on barbarism, showing how systems corrupt even the innocent.
Yet it’s a typically patronizing distraction in a picture that is content, in the end, to reduce its characters to either tragic victims or moral mouthpieces. Falling squarely into the latter camp is Bejo’s character, who, as a stand-in for the audience, is tasked with absorbing our collective guilt and channeling it in a properly uplifting, positive direction. In discussing her upcoming presentation to the U.N. committee, Carole insists to her colleagues, “It has to matter, it has to make a difference” — words that no doubt reflect the filmmakers’ regard for their own mission as they launch a sustained attack on the forces of human indifference and complacency. But by the time “The Search” finally reaches its entirely foreseeable and oddly unsatisfying conclusion (the film could have reached this point faster and spent a bit more time clarifying the aftermath), your reaction is likely to be one less of passionate inspiration, perhaps, than of weary relief that the lecture is finally over.
The actors all turn in fine work within fairly circumscribed parameters, and none are more constrained than young Mamatsuiev, who achieves a nice rapport with Bejo nonetheless. Bening believably presents Helen as a woman whose wisdom and humanity occasionally manifest themselves as impatience, and she and Duishvili are given one lovely scene that quietly and economically conveys everything the film needs to say about the human capacity for decency under difficult circumstances.
The first-rate production lensed entirely in Georgia, whose own mountainous, battle-scarred landscape made it a natural substitute for war-torn Chechnya, allowing Hazanavicius and his expert crew (much of it retained from his previous pictures) to use numerous pre-existing structures with minimal reliance on digital effects; from the various bombed-out buildings to the army barracks to the makeshift refugee camps, Emile Ghigo’s production design is effortlessly convincing. Guillaume Schiffman’s muted images have been almost entirely leached of color except ash grays and mud browns, accentuated by the occasional slash of dark red blood. Sound work is excellent, particularly in one wall-rattling scene showing the ascent of a Russian army helicopter. With no credited composer on the film, music is kept to an effective minimum.