French director Michel Hazanavicius has followed Oscar winning The Artist with the sort of film for which the terms well-meaning and misguided were invented. An overlong Euro cocktail, The Search is the story of intertwining lives during the Second Chechen War in 1999. Fatally, you never escape the feeling that this is first and foremost an issue movie—a movie "about" something rather than one that explores or enlightens. "What’s terrible is that people just don’t care!" shouts a character. You might find yourself searching in vain for Bono’s name in the end credits.
The only real link with The Artist and Hazanavicius’s earlier OSS 117 Bond-spoof films is that it takes film history as a jumping-off point, borrowing its title and vague plot outline from a German-set 1948 Fred Zinnemann movie. Anyone hoping for a cute dog, however, will have to make do with a dead one, and plenty of other carnage besides: Hazanavicius locates his film either on the battlefield or in drab towns nearby and drenches it in murky grays and other muted colors. You might also wish that The Search was as silent as The Artist because some of Bérénice Bejo’s scenes as an idealistic, frustrated human-rights worker—the wet, wailing core of this leaden movie—are seriously clunky and undo some of the effective work that Hazanavicius does elsewhere.
Starting with faux-Camcorder footage of Russian soldiers wreaking havoc in a Chechnyan village, Hazanavicius splits his story into four strands, some of which collide earlier than others. He tells of a nine-year-old Muslim Chechnyan boy, Hadji (Abdul Khalim Mamatsuevi), who’s struck dumb by trauma and forced to take to the road when his parents are killed and he’s separated from his older sister. By chance, Hadji enters the life of a French human-rights worker, Carole (Bejo), whose work brings her into occasional contact with a harried American charity worker, Helen (Annette Bening), who questions Carole’s motives for taking this child into her home.
Some of the scenes between Hadji and Carole, as they size each other up, are tender and nicely underplayed, mostly avoiding sentimentality. But The Search is always on the verge of turning its attention elsewhere, so we never get close enough to this unusual relationship to learn anything special from it. Elsewhere, we follow 20-year-old Koila (Maxim Emelianov), arrested for smoking weed, drafted into the vicious Russian army and finally sent to the front. Koila’s story is powerfully told, revealing the nasty power games and bullying inflicted by soldiers on each other. Yet this subplot, familiar but with a strong kick, mostly sits adrift from the rest of the film, so much so that we wonder why we’re watching it all.
In the end, this is the movie equivalent of a Hollywood actor making a consciousness-raising visit to a refugee camp. Hazanavicius is a good director, but here he shows serious indiscipline as a storyteller. The sense of urgency he’s so clearly aiming for is absent, and The Search only offers sparks of outrage among the gloom.