When director Michel Hazanavicius scored a hit in 2011 with The Artist — a silent yet giddy black-and-white throwback recreating a transformational era in American cinema — he gained critical applause and became the toast of Hollywood. So much so that the movie took home best picture and best actor Oscars. Its financial success allowed Hazanavicius to pursue a passion project over the next three years. The result is The Search, a harrowing war story set in 1999 during the height of the ferocious conflict engulfing the restive Muslim-majority Russian republic of Chechnya where separatist rebels battled Russian troops. With eastern Ukraine now in the headlines, the atrocities that have taken place there under Putin’s watch (he became acting president in 1999 and has ruled ever since) should not be forgotten.
Most critics have not been kind to The Search, which premiered at Cannes in 2014 and has recently had a limited release in Canadian theatres. I beg to differ. The film, which stars Bérénice Béjo and Annette Bening, shows how young men can be turned into killers and offers one of the most remarkable child performances of recent years. It’s inspired by Fred Zinnemann’s eponymous 1948 drama about a lost boy following the liberation of Nazi concentration camps who is helped by an American soldier.
The shocking opening scene shows amateur video being shot of a war crime. A Chechen village is being razed and the adult population murdered as “terrorists” while their children hide. One of these is a young girl, Raissa (Zukhra Duishvili), who escapes with her nine-year-old brother Hadji (played by another Chechen, Abdul-Khalim Mamutsiev). We will learn that one of the Russian soldiers implicated is 19-year-old Kolia (Maksim Emelyanov), a musician arrested for drug possession in a distant city, forced into the army, bullied and brutalized to the point of being an accomplice to dehumanizing evil.
In the chaos of war and refugee flight Hadji becomes separated from his sister. He wanders alone until finding sanctuary in a relief camp run by the International Committee of the Red Cross and attracting the attention of its American head, Helen (Bening). Hadji has been so traumatized into muteness that Helen can only guess at what witness to tragic loss lies behind his soulful expressive eyes. Does he have any family left to be reunited with? It’s a difficult case that brings Carole (Béjo) into the picture as an investigator with the European Human Rights Committee. At first the silent Hadji reacts like a frightened wild animal. But as their trust slowly develops Carole becomes increasingly attached to him, taking him to live with her in her hotel room. All this time Raissa has been desperately searching for him.
I won’t say whether the children are ever reunited or whether Hadji ever speaks. I will say that the narratives of Kolia, the musician become uniformed murderer, and that of his defenceless victim come together in a devastating climax.
Having just returned from travelling through Russia, it’s a great country to visit. But that does nothing to absolve the burdens of past or present conflicts. The underlying story of The Search is that the search for justice has not ended.