The film opens with a Russian soldier taking video footage of a bombed-out village in Chechnya: “Welcome to the shittiest place on the face of the earth!” The soldier films a mother and father being shot, their daughter taken away by soldiers and the two boys, nine-year-old Hadji (Abdul-Khalim Mamatsuiev) and his baby brother left alone in the house. What follows is Hadji’s escape from the village to safety in Grozny, where he first meets up with Helen (Anette Bening) at the orphanage she runs, before coming across Carole (Bérénice Bejo), an EU human rights worker. This silent, traumatised child ends up living with Carole and we see them both gradually transformed by their relationship. In another thread to this overly long yarn, we meet Kolia (Maxim Emelianov), 19-year-old student picked up by the cops for possessing dope and enlisted in the Russian Army to avoid a prison sentence. Again, we witness a transformation of this guitar-playing sweet boy into a man capable of committing and witnessing atrocities.
Hazanavicius’ DoP has gone for a classic grainy look with everything sucked of colour, the hues all greys. Many of the scenes were filmed in genuine bombed-out buildings and actual homes. This gives the film a certain realistic feel, though the washed-out colours begin to pall pretty early on. The scenes of the Chechens’ mass exodus from their homes is captured well, and there are moments of humour when the village women are huddled in a room listening to their homes being bombarded. When the only man complains, an elderly woman asks “Should we be serious in death? Does it change anything?”
Where the film really falls flat on its face is with the dialogue. Most of Carole and Helen’s conversations are more like didactic speechifying and they never sound as if they are having real conversations. As a consequence they never act like it either. Kolia fares a little better, perhaps as he has more to do. His mental and physical trajectory that leads to him becoming a killing machine is portrayed with horrifying clarity. There are clear parallels with Vietnam films here, the director citing Full Metal Jacket as one main inspiration. There is even a scene with Hadji listening to The Deerhunter theme, Hazanavicius banging home to us the similarities between these two unwinnable wars. But the outstanding performance is that of Chechan child actor Mamatsuiev, perhaps, thanks to his mute performance, because he is saved from the preachy, non-dialogue of his costars. It would appear that when it comes to Hazanavicius’ films, silence really is golden.