Sometimes a film is so beautifully made, a reviewer can literally be at a loss as to how to do it justice with words. All you can do is have a seat, place your fingers on the keys and hope for the best.
Such is the case with the new Michel Havanavicius film, The Search, which I saw with English subtitles at Cannes last night as a guest of Stella Artois*. It’s a remake of a 1948 Fred Zinnemann film, in which a young Auschwitz survivor and his mother seek to reunite in post-WWII Europe. Havanavicius updates the tale for a more modern conflict—late ’90s strife between Chechnya and the Russian government—to create a powerful message even those unfamiliar with that hellish situation won’t soon forget.
Things begin bleakly, as nine-year-old Hadji (Abdul Khalim Mamutsiev) watches from the second floor of a house as Russian soldiers kill his mother and father and drag teenage sister Raïssa (Zukhra Duishvili) away for interrogation. Hadji hides and later escapes with his baby brother before, unable to care for the infant, he leaves him on on the doorstep of a Chechen household.
At the same time, a young human rights crusader named Carole (the beautiful Bérénice Bejo, who also starred in Havanicius’ Oscar winner, The Artist) is lobbying to get the United Nations to declare a state of emergency in the country, as Russian soldiers are bombing, killing and pillaging pretty much at will. She happens upon Hadji, now filthy, hungry and wandering the streets and temporarily takes him in, though the traumatized boy—who believes his siblings may also be dead—will not utter a word.
Havanavicius updates the tale for a more modern conflict—late ’90s strife between Chechnya and the Russian government—to create a powerful message even those unfamiliar with that hellish situation won’t soon forget.
Carole asks world-weary aid administrator Helen (Annette Bening) for advice. The response, curtly delivered, is harsh: all her paper-writing probably won’t change a thing, and taking responsibility for the orphan may be the best thing she can do in a war-torn atmosphere most of the world would prefer to ignore.
In addition, bear with me, there’s a parallel storyline involving a Russian teen, Kolia (Maksim Emelyanov), who enters the army to avoid jail time for smoking pot. He’s a goofy, sheltered kid who gets introduced to a whole new reality amongst a hardened group of men who regularly bully and beat him to the point where the only guys he talks to are the killed comrades it’s his job to bag, tag and send home.
If that sounds like a lot to process, it is. Yet in the capable hands of a master director, working with a talented and telegenic cast, the story unfolds in a truly gripping, emotionally engaging manner. The landscape is sparse and wrecked—dead soldiers and civilians, scavenging dogs, burning buildings—but the characters’ hearts and minds and motivations routinely draw us in.
Carole, makeup-less and plainly dressed, is the character most Western viewers can best relate to. She’s a bright, earnest young woman who cares so much, who wants so badly to change the world that she finds herself screaming over the phone at a well-meaning but jaded bureaucrat. Also tugging at the heartstrings, of course, is young Hadji, whose traumatic past combines with a wide-eyed moonface to endear even as he refuses to speak. (Indeed, amongst many disheartening moments, one scene the kid has almost all to himself caused the audience to burst into spontaneous and lasting applause.)
Hardened by war: Maksim Emelyanov’s transformation isn’t quite as uplifting as Berenice Bejo’s.
You can’t help but root for these two as they rail against their circumstances. The same goes for sister Raïssa, who joyfully locates her infant brother, yet aches as she seeks the older one. The same goes for Bening’s Helen and all the people trying to help. The same goes for the innocent Chechens caught in the crossfire.
And in the director’s most skillful twist, the same goes for the Russian soldier, Kolia, who stands up for himself against the bullies, eventually becoming a bit of a bully himself. We’re sickened to see how he’s treated, encouraged when he rallies—and uncomfortable when we begin to see where things are ultimately headed. Sometimes doing what it takes to survive harsh conditions spawns a person only capable of inflicting new harshness on others, and that’s hard to watch.
Before you fear I’ve seen nothing uplifting at Cannes, know that it’s not all doom and gloom. Contrast Kolia’s arc with that of Carole, who begins to learn that no matter how much you care, and no matter how much you strive to get others to care as you do, you might not in fact change the world.
And yet, on a seemingly much smaller scale, by taking in a troubled boy, by cooking for him and talking with him, playing CDs for him, hugging him like a mother would and helping him learn to smile again, you just might be able to change one life. And in an environment nearly devoid of hope, that counts for a helluva lot.
*Stella Artois has been an official partner of the Cannes Film Festival for 13 years. The partnership shines a spotlight on the men and women whose commitment to excellence makes world-class events such as Cannes Film Festival possible. The sponsorship is part of a larger campaign called the World’s Greatest Events, which you can learn more about by visiting youtube.com/stellaartois.