Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB. France/Georgia, 2014. La Petite Reine, La Classe Américaine,Wild Bunch, France 3 Cinema, Orange Studio, Sarke Studio, Westart Invest, NJJ Capital, SofiTVCiné, Canal+, Cine+, France Televisions, Mandarin Films, Gaumont, M6 Films, Canal+, CineCinema. Screenplay by Michel Hazanavicius. Cinematography by Guillaume Schiffman. Produced by Michel Hazanavicius, Thomas Langmann. Production Design by Emile Ghigo. Costume Design by Loic Barnier, Thierry Delettre, Jacques Mazuel, Sabrina Riccardi, Polina Rudchik. Film Editing by Anne-Sophie Bion, Michel Hazanavicius. Cannes Film Festival 2014. Toronto International Film Festival 2014.
At the height of the second Chechnyan war, Russian soldiers shoot and kill a married couple suspected of being terrorists, taking their daughter in for “interrogation” while stranding a nine year-old boy with his toddler sibling. The older boy wanders the battle-scarred landscape before finding himself in a populated area, taking up with a Human Rights Commission researcher (Berenice Bejo) who is there to compile stories for a report she eventually plans to present to the United Nations. His older sister finds her way to a Red Cross where its director (Annette Bening) puts her to work helping other similarly displaced victims of this terrible conflict, while in Russia a young man is arrested for smoking pot and placed in the army as a way of keeping him out of prison. These many narrative strands are handled ably by Michel Hazanavicius, inspired by the similar Fred Zinnemann film of the same name, as he presents a brutally frank recreation of the grand human failure that this war (like many others) represents, simultaneously tracking the discovery of kindness and sympathy in one story (Bejo doesn’t connect with her research until she grows fond of the boy in her charge) while exploring the loss of humanity in the other (the Russian army is not a place where masculinity can be anything but vicious). Despite terrific performances and some truly astounding sequences, there’s something about the overall project that doesn’t quite come off. Some turns of the plot smack of convenient coincidence, sometimes downright contrivance, and a few things don’t make much sense (Bejo’s inability to do anything with the boy other than shut him up in her apartment all day while she goes about her business doesn’t sit right, even if it is meant as a statement on the hypocrisy of humanitarian aid organizations, who talk a big game while being ineffective in practice). That said, it is memorable and moving and holds you to its characters’ plight over its entire running time, particularly given how sympathetic and dear Abdul Khalim Mamutsiev is as young Hadji, plus it is a detailed record of the atrocity it records.