The film begins and ends on 16 October 1999, with 20-year-old Kolia, (Maksim Emelyanov), a Russian Army recruit, recording and narrating with a handheld video camera, as young, drunken Russian soldiers taunt, terrorize, and finally execute a civilian Chechen couple in front of their teenage daughter Raissa (Zukhra Duishvili). Kolia's story is one of four personal narratives that unfold against the backdrop of the ruins of a village in Chechnya, the flood of civilian refugees from the village, and a family partially reunited. We first meet Kolia as a pot-smoking guitar player in Perm, 2300 kilometers from the Chechen border, where he is taken into custody for possession of drugs and drafted into army service. As a new recruit, he undergoes a brutal transformation from an innocent youth into a "dehumanized killing machine." When Kolia's fellow soldiers, kill the Chechen couple, the couple's nine-year-old son, Hadji (Abdul Khalim Mamutsiev) hides and watches and when it is safe, he is able to carry his infant brother to relative safety. The trauma of his parents' death renders him mute. He is helped along the way to the refugee camp by other Chechen refugees and eventually, he is befriended by Carole (Bérénice Bejo), a French-born, Chechnya-based NGO worker. Carole, who works as a researcher and representative of the Human Rights Committee of the European Union, helps Hadji regain his ability to speak. Hadji's elder sister Raïssa searches for both brothers. Helen (Annette Bening), a Red Cross worker, is interviewed by Carol and places hope in the International response to the Second Chechen War to the centuries-old struggle of the Chechen people. Raissa, reunited with her baby brother, escapes once again from the village with the help of other Chechen refugees. She has to leave without Hadji, against her will, because of the Russian military forces' aerial bombing. Raissa helps Helen at the International Red Cross orphanage. Both Helen and Carole are discouraged when the United Nations Commission of Human Rights report of April 2000 does not declare the situation in Chechnya a humanitarian disaster. Carole delivers her report to the United Nations but soon realizes that not many of the participants are listening. With the help of Carole and Helen, Hadji is reunited with his siblings. The film ends at the beginning, with Kolia's filming of the attack on Hadji's family.Bérénice Bejo as Carole
Annette Bening as Helen
Maksim Emelyanov as Kolia
Abdul Khalim Mamutsiev as Hadji
Zukhra Duishvili as Raïssa
Lela Bagakashvili as Elina
Yuriy Tsurilo as The Colonel
Anton Dolgov as Soldier
Mamuka Matchitidze as Father
Rusudan Pareulidze as Mother
Much of the filming took place alongside the Caucasus Mountains in Georgia, depicting places like a village near Grozny, NGO offices in the city of Nazran in nearby Ingushetia, a federal subject of Russia that borders Chechnya, the city of Perm, Russia. Film critic Justin Chang praised the work of set designer, Emile Ghigo, who used buildings, places, and geographical features in the "mountainous, battle-scarred landscape" of Georgia that were similar to those in Chechnya including buildings destroyed by bombs, army barracks and refugee camps. McCarthy also cited Ghigo's contribution with his "well-chosen locations, the crowded city scenes, detention centers and army barracks reek with the feel, sounds and discomfort of humanity pressed into unnaturally tight quarters."
Critics praised the work of Guillaume Schiffman, the French cinematographer, who also worked with director Michel Hazanavicius on films such as The Artist. McCarthy described how they used "muted but still sharply defined colors, as well as with what appear to be mostly handheld cameras, to achieve a somber yet vitally immediate look."
On film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, critics gave The Search a rating of 25%, based on 16 reviews, with a weighted average score of 4.9/10. On Metacritic, the film has a normalized score of 37 out of 100, based on 8 critics, indicating "generally unfavorable reviews". The Guardian journalist Peter Bradshaw argued that Hazanavicius' attempt at "Old Hollywood big-hearted sincerity" devolved from an earnest rejection of violence against all actors in a war, into naive sentimentality. Bradshaw did commend Hazanavicius for reminding the west and the European Union of their lack of concern and inaction when Boris Yeltsin attacked Chechenya. Chang also praised all the actors for turning "in fine work within fairly circumscribed parameters;" he described the production as "first-rate" and the sound work as excellent. However, he called the film a "grueling, lumbering, two-and-a-half-hour humanitarian tract that all but collapses under the weight of its own moral indignation" with an approach that was "ultimately hectoring" and "didactic." The Globe and Mail critic Liam Lacey described the film as "long, unoriginal and heavy-handed", a direct opposite of Hazanavicius' Oscar-winning silent movie comedy, The Artist. Critic Todd McCarthy observed that the Chechen faction to which the Russians were responding — referred to as rebels, terrorists or invaders elsewhere — are conspicuously absent from the film's mosaic. McCarthy remarked that, "it might have behooved [the film maker] to have everyday Chechens as well as the foreigners reference them, positively or negatively, to at least make them a presence and a factor in the tragedy."