“This isn’t Saving Private Ryan,” a Russian soldier remarks to camera as one of his comrades films the aftermath of a battle and an ensuing massacre with a video camera. Yet, for all his latest offerings’s fleeting moments of gritty realism, Oscar-winning The Artist director Michel Hazanavicius’ The Search (2014) is a gruesomely sentimental piece, whose clumsiness and good intentions get in the way of drama itself. A loose remake of Fred Zinnemann’s 1948 Academy Award-winning movie of the same name, the action has been moved to the Second Chechen War. Following the murder of his parents, nine-year-old Hadji (Abdul Khalim Mamutsiev) flees his home with a packed bag and his baby brother.
Unable to protect his kin, Hadji abandons the baby with a family and, traumatised by the war, joins the other refugees out of the conflict zone. Here, he at first meets Annette Bening’s social worker Helen, before running away once more to end up in the care of Carole (Bérénice Bejo), a human rights worker preparing a report on the situation. Meanwhile, Hadji’s sister Raïssa (Zukhra Duishvili) – who has witnessed her parent’s death and has presumably been raped by the soldiers, although little is made of that – manages to retrieve her baby brother and begins the search for Hadji. She ends up in Helen’s refugee centre where, suspending her search for a random amount of time, she begins to look after the children. In a third strand, Russian teen Kolia (Maksim Emelyanov) is arrested with a joint.
Given little choice, Kolia is forced into the army and bullied, beaten and finally brutalised before being shipped off to fight the “terrorists”. These scenes are perhaps the most powerful and convincing, complete with an unremitting grimness. However, although Hazanavicius’ intention in following Kolia’s transformation is clearly to provide a balance, the fact that the Russians are so uniformly awful rather defeats the point. The teen becomes thoroughly indoctrinated as he’s physically abused, whilst everyone yells at him that all Chechens – even the children – are terrorists and the enemy. There’s no doubting Hazanavicius’ sincerity in trying to bring the Chechen conflict, the war crimes committed against the civilian community and the indifference of the international community to light, but it’s this righteousness that gets in the way of The Search working as a film first and foremost.
Carole and Helen are both furrow-browed, finger-wagging cardboard cut-outs, whilst the cloth-eared dialogue makes everyone sound like they’re really talking to the camera and not to each other. Carole’s subplot, for instance, seems utterly uninspired. When Carole gives a speech to the EU Foreign Affairs committee, she seems surprised to see that they don’t jump into action. Afterwards, she’s told by an MEP “not to get emotionally involved”. She scowls, and would probably have wagged her finger if the lift hadn’t come. The occasional comic moments are misconceived and The Search as a whole reeks of a suspension of critical thought. Everything is used in the service of a worthy argument, but its melodramatic plotting, its banal characterisation and heavy-handed point-making rob the film of the essential credibility it needs if it’s going to intervene in the conflict effectively.
The 67th Cannes Film Festival takes place from 14-25 May 2014. For more Cannes coverage, simply follow this link.