Film Reviews


By • Mar 9th, 2009 •

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“12” is a very Russian version of Sidney Lumet’s TWELVE ANGRY MEN directed by Nikita Mikhalkov, whose BURNT BY THE SUN won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1994. It’s a stunning idea: the classic of American jurisprudence set in post-Communist Russia, a country pervaded by what its own president, Dmitiri Medvedev, calls “legal nihilism” — by which he means not just lawlessness, but a lack of belief in law.

“12” is a variation on a theme rather than a remake. Mikhalkov’s interest in TWELVE ANGRY MEN is subtle and personal; it’s in the possibilities it creates rather than what it’s about. Lumet’s 1957 film brings together a dozen very different people and makes them into something they, and we, recognize as Americans. The twelve angry men are the nation in microcosm. Mikhalkov starts from the same departure point – twelve jurors as a cross-section of Russian society. But rallying the nation of Ivan the Terrible, Stalin, the oligarchs and Putin, around the rule of law is like taking the Trans-Siberian railway from Moscow to Vladivostock compared with jumping on the subway to Foley Square. He’s got a long, long way to go.

In both films, all but one of the jurors are already convinced that a teenage boy is guilty of murder. In the American film, the boy is a “hood,” a newcomer ruining the neighborhood, one of those kids who are “all alike.” In the Russian film, the boy is described in exactly the same way but he is a Chechen refugee. Both are accused of the Oedipal crime, the ultimate threat to authority: patricide. To add insult to injury, the Chechen has allegedly murdered a Russian officer who rescued him and treated him like a son.

The setting – as in Lumet – is all in one room. However, in Mikhalkov’s Russia, the courthouse is ironically under construction and they must lock the jury in a decrepit, Soviet-built, school gymnasium. The lights flicker on and off, a pipe bursts, and a little bird gets in and flutters around the rusting metal rafters. (Russian folklore is filled with stories about birds, which variously symbolize the soul or freedom or something equally lofty.) In counterpoint to the grizzled men in a place where children are meant to play, we see scenes of the Chechen boy (Apti Magamaev) freezing in prison as well as flashbacks to his horrifying life. The film as a whole is framed by images of dead Russian soldiers in Chechen streets, a dog running with a human bone in its mouth. This is not securely sequestered 1950’s America; Mikhalkov gives us the world outside the Motherland as well as within, the border where the definition and identity of the nation is contested.

The performances are rich and beautiful, each a long but often riveting monologue. Stephen Holden, in the New York Times, called these theatrical set pieces “operatic.” He was referring to a larger-than-life grandiloquence in the writing (by Vladimir Moiseenko and Alexander Novotsky-Vlasov, with the director), but it is also true that they work somewhat like 19th century rececitive that stops the opera’s story dead in its tracks to glorify the music. The film is 159 minutes long – almost twice as long as the original – and it’s in these speeches that one feels it.

Lumet chose Henry Fonda (Young Mr. Lincoln!) to play the role of the one juror who awakens reasonable doubt in the consciences of the others. His authority is based on principle; I don’t believe we ever know what his occupation is. Mikhalkov gives this role to a soft-spoken technocrat (Sergey Makovetsky) who believes in redemption because he was saved by the love of a good woman when he lost both a valuable patent and all belief in himself. (She is the only woman even mentioned in the film except for the mama of a mama’s boy tv producer and the “chocolate-nippled” girlfriend of a charmingly corrupt gravedigger.) Redemption is a core belief in Russian Orthodoxy, a tradition clearly respected by Mikhalkov. It is one of the great themes of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. It’s interesting that here, this noble Everyman is someone who has invented a cellphone component and made a zillion rubles. Would he be less influential if he had not?

There is an old Jewish intellectual (Valentin Gaft) and the bigoted Moscow cabbie (Sergey Garmash) who is disgusted with him – and everyone else. The most sympathetic character is a surgeon who, like the defendant, is also from the Caucasus (Sergey Gazarov). He finally gets tired of the cabbie’s reactionary rant and scares the shit out of him by doing an astonishing folkdance with a dagger. We have earlier seen a similar dance by the Chechen when he was a little boy playing with his uncle’s knife.

These dances are the freshest and most powerful moments in the film. Terrifying and gorgeous, each is a tour de force of danger and control. Both the boy and the surgeon balance like circus performers on the very edge of disaster. I thought about these dances long after and wondered why Mikhalkov made me love them. Perhaps they are a challenge to his native audience, an invitation to take a risk without which nothing can really change.

Mikhalkov himself plays the jury foreman, an ex-officer of the “state-apparatus.” In an admittedly appealing display of autocracy, he makes a final point which may render the jury’s decision moot. His performance is powerful — a convincing combination of realpolitik, paternalism and guilt. Yet the others vote him down. Democracy only guarantees the individual freedom of choice; it cannot guarantee the choice is right.

Mikhalkov is the great-grandson of a Galitzine princess, and the son of the man who wrote the lyrics to the Soviet national anthem – in other words, he is of an elite that has prospered under all forms of Russian government. In the production notes, his final comment on the situation in his homeland is dour: “The Russian people are incapable of following the law because it bores them.” Yet the movie he has made is itself a plea for some reasonable doubt.

As the film opens, a man named Mikhail B. Khodorovsky comes to trial for the second time in Moscow. He was one of the richest men in Russia, brought down, it is widely believed, because his power threatened Putin. Human rights advocates all over the world are now watching to see if President Medvedev’s commitment to reforming and enforcing Russian law is real. It will be interesting to see which Mikhalkov prevails: the eternal Slavic fatalist or the man who fell for Henry Fonda and Sidney Lumet.

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