Pras on World Films: “12”

“12” Nikita Mikhalkov’s grandiloquent remake of “12 Angry Men,” portrays the clashes among 12 Muscovites charged with determining the guilt or innocence of a young boy, a 12Chechen teenager, accused of murder.  In Twelve Angry Men, the accused is a scrawny, Chicano-looking kid. In 12, the kid is Chechen and the jury is made up of ethnic Slavs. Interwoven with the deliberations are murky flashbacks of the accused killer’s harsh childhood in war-torn Chechnya, and a composite portrait of post-Soviet Russia. In the screenplay, written by the director with Vladimir Moiseenko and Alexander Novototsky-Vlasov, the effort expended by a fractious jury to reach an agreement is taken as a hopeful metaphor for the country’s struggle to achieve an elusive national unity.

The Chechen teenager who keeps terrible memories is accused of murdering his adopted father, a retired Russian officer. “Uncle Volodya,” as the kid calls him, was a friend of the Chechen’s slaughtered family. The case seems simple, but the doubts of one man gradually begin to reveal its inconsistencies; revealing also, in perfect symmetry, human tragedies as modern and immediate as life in Moscow, and as old as the world.

Contrary to what the film assumes we expect, the boy isn’t the average murderous Chechen: despite his exotic ways and Roma attire, he loves his mom, obeys his dad, and avoids the swarthy warmongers that parade through town. When his parents are brutally murdered, the culprits are Arabesque enforcers, not the crusading Russian army. He’s even rescued and adopted by a kindly Russian soldier — the father he’s eventually accused of stabbing to death.

The boy dances in his prison cell, just like he danced when separatist fighters rolled into town – the handsome, powerful, briefly joyous, briefly ominous men. There is the horrible intimacy of the murdered parents – the bullethole in the mother’s beautiful face and the knife in the father’s back. A small bird hops with what seems like merry impatience next to an icon of the Virgin Mary – “if you want to fly away, go ahead… if you want to stay-stay….” a man with a weary face tells the bird – “but let this be your decision.” A massive heating pipe snaking through a school gym like a monstrous anaconda tells the story of decades of apathy and indignity that have left an entire nation in tatters. And then there are stories, stories intertwining and giving birth to new stories: makeshift nooses in the hands of children, flying knives, fresh graves overflowing with water – dirty in more ways than one.

Nikita Mikhalkov’s “12,” inspired by “12 Angry Men,” examines post-Soviet Russia. In the foreground, Mr. Mikhalkov, as the jury foreman, watches Alexey Petrenko, as a transit worker, speak.

This Russian remake of “12 Angry Men,” however expands the elements of that modest courtroom classic to operatic dimensions. Instead of being confined to a cramped jury room, the 12 jurors are dispatched to a decrepit high school gymnasium next to the courthouse, whose condition suggests Russia’s crumbling infrastructure. Asbestos bursts from a leaky steam pipe that runs across the ceiling, and the lights periodically flicker on and off.  At one end of the gym is a piano locked behind bars through which one juror reaches to play some sour notes. Random items discovered on the premises include a syringe and an oversize brassiere. Midway in the deliberations, a sparrow finds its way into the gym, where it flutters around frantically.

The majority of the jurors are grim, bearish men of late middle age who carry the scars of historical and personal traumas. As they debate the fate of an 18-year-old Chechen youth (Apti Magamaev), accused of murdering his adoptive father, a Russian officer, many of their speeches have the ring of stentorian arias projected to the rafters. Several of their stories have the fantastical quality of modern folk tales.

Nikita Mikhalkov in "12."The most dislikable juror is a racist, anti-Semitic cab driver (Sergey Garmash) who despises all non-Russians and dismisses the accused young man as “a stinking Chechen dog.” In the most melodramatic scene he intimidates a Harvard-educated producer of reality television (Yuri Stoyanov) into changing his vote by forcing him to imagine that he has returned home to find his wife and daughter butchered by the kind of violent killer he assumes the defendant to be. His sadistic fantasy drives the neurotic producer to a retching panic attack.

Other jurors with far-fetched tales include an elderly Jewish intellectual (Valentin Gaft) who tells a Holocaust survival story involving his father and the wife of a Nazi officer; a surgeon from the Caucasus (Sergey Gazarov), who demonstrates his knife-throwing expertise; and an avaricious cemetery director whose gleeful descriptions of how he cheats his clients suggests a society in which corruption is endemic. Mr. Mikhalkov plays the jury foreman, who, near the end of the film, spills his own secrets.

As in the original movie, 11 of the jurors, eager to resume their daily lives, unthinkingly vote guilty on the first ballot. After the lone dissenter, an engineer who invented a cellphone diode (Sergey Makovetsky), insists that they remain long enough to consider the consequences of rubber-stamping the prosecution’s case, they reluctantly settle down to debate. This contrarian (played by Henry Fonda in the original movie) steers the balance of opinion away from assumed guilt, as the jurors weigh the credibility of two eyewitnesses and examine the murder weapon, a knife. Using the athletic equipment at hand, they improvise a re-creation of the murder that undercuts the prosecution’s version of events.

“12” is directed by Mr. Mikhalkov, whose 1994 movie, “Burnt by the Sun,” won an Academy Award for best foreign-language film. On 8 September 2007, the film “12” received a special Golden Lion for the “consistent brilliance” of its work and was praised by many critics at the Venice Film Festival. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

Directed by Nikita Mikhalkov; written by Mr. Mikhalkov, Alexander Novototsky-Vlasov and Vladimir Moiseenko, based on the screenplay “12 Angry Men” by Reginald Rose; director of photography, Vladislav Opeliants; edited by Andrey Zaitsev and Enzo Meniconi; music by Edward Artemiev; production designer, Victor Petrov; produced by Leonid Vereschagin and Mr. Mikhalkov; released by Sony Pictures Classics. At Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, west of Avenue of the Americas, South Village. In Russian and Chechen, with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 39 minutes.

WITH: Sergey Makovetsky (Engineer), Nikita Mikhalkov (Foreman), Sergey Garmash (Cabbie), Valentin Gaft (Elderly Jewish Man), Alexey Petrenko (Transit Worker), Yuri Stoyanov (TV Producer), Sergey Gazarov (Surgeon), Mikhail Efremov (Traveling Actor), Alexander Adabashian (Marshall the Bailiff) and Apti Magamaev (Chechen Accused Man).

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