Oscar-winning director Michel Hazanavicius has shifted his focus from riffing on famous genres to making his most ambitious film to date, The Search. Chalk it up perhaps to him wanting to dig a little deeper than where he went with The Artist and deeper than he’s ever gone previously in his career, but this is his first real deep dive into a very serious subject — the human rights abuses and mass murders that went on in Chechnya around 1999 at the hands of the Russians.
Taking the side of the Chechens here, Hazanavicius risks criticism by many who continue to believe the Chechens are ruthless terrorists, much the way many Americans regard people from Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. In fact, the last terrorist bombing in Boston was at the hands of Chechen terrorists. But there is another side of the story to tell, one that probably not many are even aware of; after all, it took much aggressive protesting and advocacy to get the European forum on human rights abuse to acknowledge what happened to the Chechens at the hands of the Russians.
The story begins and ends with a clever and potent gimmick of sorts, but to say anymore would be too big a spoiler. We follow nine-year-old Hadji (Abdul Khalim Mamutsiev), who has been left orphaned after his mother and father are casually murdered at the hands of over-zealous Russian soldiers. While his sister is being raped, Hadji makes a fast getaway with his baby brother. After he deposits his baby brother with a family he knows will take care of him, Hadji begins a long, strange journey into some kind of safety zone. He ends up in a refugee camp and eventually under the care of Carole (Berenice Bejo).
The film, also written by Hazanvicius, cuts between three stories — Hadji’s sister who is alive and searching for her two brothers; a Russian youth picked up on the streets for possession and made to go into the Russian army; and Hadji and Bejo.
The most difficult scenes to watch are the treatment of the young man who joins the Russian army. While Hazanavicius paints the Russians as evil in almost a cartoony way, there is little point in denying what many of those Russian soldiers did to innocent women and children. Who were those people who committed those crimes against humanity? This is an attempt to explain how it could have happened. The dehumanizing of the military in certain parts of the world explains that. Surely, all Russian soldiers are not that evil but this is a film from a specific point of view and from that view only someone with an emptied-out soul could have committed the crimes we see at the very beginning.
Many of the French audience members here in Cannes booed at the end of The Search — probably because of the plot gimmicks like the bookend events, and for the heavy-handed emotion and sentimentality of the story; Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Woody Allen could get away with it, but Hazanavicius is being held to the fire over it.
But The Search ends up being so emotionally compelling because of Hazanavicius’ willingness to tell the story with sentimentality. Either you go with it or you don’t. If you do, you will forgive the film’s flaws — some stereotyping and perhaps unbelievable plot points. If you don’t go with it, you willfully overlook the importance of a story that seeks to bring our attention to just what happened to the Chechen people, much of which few people knows about. You will do this because the movie didn’t work for you, and of course, that is your prerogative. But sometimes there are things about a film that seem to matter a lot more than one viewer’s comfort level, at least to me they do.
This is the story Hazanavicius wanted to tell. To tell it, he assembled a cast made up almost entirely of women, save for the main focus of the story, the nine-year-old boy. What happens to him, who fights for his rights and the rights of other Chechen refugees, however, is left almost entirely to the women — chief among them, Berenice Bejo as Carol, a human rights advocate who takes the boy into her home and Annette Bening, who plays Helen, a weary social worker helping the orphaned Chechens.
Bejo is excellent, as usual — a woman not inclined towards mothering suddenly stuck with the care of a child. Bejo’s charm with the boy is undeniable, and as he gazes up at her with so much love and admiration in his eyes, she begins to see herself differently. Bening is also a standout as a social worker so exhausted she’s all but given up hope. Both women, in fact, are just about ready to abandon any faith they might have left that someone, somewhere will care enough about these tragedies to do something about them. Somehow this story with these orphaned Chechens helps to renew their faith that their work hasn’t been in vain.
Two decades later, not enough reparations have been made to recover what the Chechens lost — no rebuilding of utilities or towns, for instance. The Search is a hard look at a terrible war in a region so full of conflict peace may never be found. That Hazanavicius decided to tell this story after winning so big with The Artist in 2011 is an interesting choice. He’s now shown that he intends to become a serious filmmaker, whether the industry or the critics community will accept that change is a different story.
The Search is an imperfect film that ultimately succeeds because of the actors, and the director’s unflinching commitment to bring history to the forefront. It is also a solid story reminiscent of war films of the 1930s on through the 1950s and 1960s. It has echoes of the 400 Blows, Schindler’s List, even Saving Private Ryan. Here is a director, like Truffaut and Spielberg, who is pointedly not afraid of taking a sappy turn just as he’s not afraid of depicting raw and nearly unwatchable violence.
This is a film not for the critical elite but rather ticket buyers who might be looking for a little redemption, and a little uplift, and a little beauty amid the torment.