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Prestigious film awards are often a kiss of death. After all the commotion and red-carpet moments of glory, the winners may fade away or become the victims of attacks launched by the media. Such is the case with Michel Hazanavicius, who bagged a totally-out-of-left-field Oscar for best director in 2012 for his silent film “The Artist.” What crashing applause. What sighs of awe. With “The Artist,” Hazanavicius revived both monochrome visuals and the use of a silent soundtrack, and the world was taken aback at the film’s elegant graciousness And then opinions changed.

Hazanavicius’ latest film, “The Search,” was lambasted in Europe and the U.S. as a confusing, sprawling train wreck of a follow-up to his magnum opus. No doubt “The Artist” set the bar high for the filmmaker, but the hatred feels unjustified considering that “The Search” is a tremendously earnest and ambitious effort by Hazanavicius to wrench himself out of his comfort zone and go out on a shaky limb.

Set against the backdrop of the second Chechen war, which began in 1999, “The Search” mainly traces the lives of two boys swallowed up in the vortex of war: 9-year-old Chechen Hadji (Abdul Khalim Mamutsiev) and Russian teenager Kolia (Maxim Emelyanov). In the midst of the horrifying atrocities that ensue, each must find a way to survive and keep some shred of integrity intact.

The Search (Ano Hi no Koe o Sagashite)
Rating
Run Time 135 mins
Language French, English, Russian, Chechen (subtitled in Japanese)
Opens April 24

The Russians are drawn here as evil barbarous warmongers, but real U.N. reports confirm horrific acts did take place during the invasion of Chechnya. Entire villages were destroyed and whole families wiped out under the guise of “exterminating terrorists” and, in the story, little Hadji watches from the window of his house as his parents kneel in the dirt and are shot by Russian soldiers. The incident leaves him mute. He picks up his baby brother and takes to the road, with the sound of tanks and gunshots ringing in his ears. His older sister Raissa (Zukhra Duishvili) returns to find her home empty and she, too, takes to the road trying to locate her brothers.

In the meantime, Hadji encounters Carole (Berenice Bejo), a discouraged and disillusioned NGO worker writing atrocity reports for U.N. refugees, many of them children, who are flooding into Grozny, but there is little food or resources to help them. Carole takes Hadji into her home, feeling that here, at last, is a chance for direct engagement. Her boss and mentor, Helen (Annette Bening), warns her that saving one child won’t change anything, but they both know it’s got to be better than just doing their jobs, which consist mainly of writing reports and letters of appeal.

The narrative is tight and focused in the scenes with Hadji and Carole, but falters when it shifts to Kolia. The latter is forcibly recruited into the Russian Army, and he’s trained to the point where he can no longer remember the young man he used to be. He begins to function as a menacing killing machine, opening fire on anyone who is arbitrarily marked as a terrorist. Kolia’s story is convoluted and often borders on caricature — it’s messy without being very effective.

“The Search” is actually two sagas rolled into one and the two-hour-plus duration isn’t nearly enough to tell all the stories Hazanavicius has clenched in his fist. The effort, though, is heroic. Hazanavicius is apparently less worried about his Oscar reputation than doing what needs to be done as a filmmaker who has gained attention and a platform, if only temporarily.

Perhaps that accounts for the now-or-never mood of desperation permeating the whole story, but that’s also what makes it glow.

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