With The Search, Michel Hazanivicius takes a left turn into dramatic territory from the crowd-pleasing Oscar winner The Artist. It’s good to see him trying new things, but it’s too bad the results aren’t better. Given new relevance with Russia’s recent actions in Ukraine, the story examines the horrors of war through multiple points of view by way of the 1999 war in Chechnya. It’s a well-intended film and it has a few powerful moments, but ultimately it does not illuminate the specific conflict or offer any revelations about war in general.
Based on Fred Zinnemann’s 1948 film of the same name starring Montgomery Clift, The Search begins with a family of Chechens being shot as spies leaving a young girl, a little boy and an infant orphaned and separated from each other. In their quest to reunite, the boy, Hadji, meets up and is taken in by Carole (Berenice Bejo) a well-meaning French worker for the UN Commission on Human Rights. Meanwhile his sister Raïssa takes a job caring for children and a Red Cross center run by Helen (Annette Bening). Hazanavicius jumps from these stories to one following a young Russian’s recruitment into the military and the constant brutalization he endures as he’s turned into a killing machine.
Hazanavicius has a knack for casting actors with expressive faces (who can ever forget Jean Dujardin in The Artist and both OSS 117 movies?) and he’s done it again with young Abdul Khalim Mamutsiev who plays the largely silent Hadji who’s haunted countenance alone is genuinely moving. While she doesn’t shine quite like she did in Asghar Farhadi’s The Past, Berenice Bejo is also solid as long as she’s speaking her native French. Here English speeches however are another story. They seem awkward and unfelt. I’m inclined to blame the writing however because the always reliable Annette Bening is also saddled with terrible dialogue.
The real failing of The Search however is in its lack of anything interesting or new to say about the horrors of war. Yes, war is terrible and the film illustrates this from as many different points of view as possible, but it all seems so familiar. I kept waiting for some new insight into either the Chechen conflict or war in general but it never came. Frequently harrowing and occasionally moving, The Search has its moments, but not enough of them to fill its ambitious two and a half hour running time.