Michel Hazanavicius was best known in France for goofy spy film parodies until 2011, when his film The Artist won over international audiences and hatfuls of awards. The Search, a wartime melodrama set against 1999's second Chechen war, shares very little DNA with his earlier works, though the project does rest largely on the shoulders of the director's regular leading lady (and wife), Bérénice Bejo.
When nine-year-old Hadji (Abdul Khalim Mamutsiev) witnesses the murder of his parents by Russian soldiers, he scoops up his infant brother and flees, joining a chaotic wave of refugees. Traumatised and mute, he finally finds a protector in Carole (Bejo), a frustrated NGO worker. The pair slowly bond, not knowing that Hadji’s sister is looking for him.
Across the frontline, Kolia (Maksim Emelyanov, excellent throughout), is conscripted into the Russian army, where he is transformed from a pot-smoking student into an unblinking killer.
This is a loose remake of Fred Zinneman’s 1948 film of the same name, and Hazanavicius’s ambitious, sprawling screenplay grapples with themes of military brutality, tardy international intervention, and the limitations of humanitarian efforts.
In theory, the classic Hollywood beats of the story ought to make the violence and the endless bureaucracy faced by Bejo’s Carole palatable. In practice, there’s a good deal of friction as the film moves between the horrors of war, moist-eyed melodrama and political wrangling. The dialogue – a mish-mash of translations and second languages – is equally unsettled.
Hazanavicius and cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman work a grubby, authentic sense of reportage into the material, and the actors work in small, delicate movements. But it all gets a bit lost in the lengthy run time and the many jarring shifts in tone and content.
This is a well-meaning and timely drama, nonetheless.