Thursday, March 26, 2009
Russia doesn't have the same kind of jury system as we do in the U.S. so the film is a bit of a fantasy or at least set in an imagined modern Russia. The new film 12 keeps much of Reginald Rose's 12 Angry Men intact but with a distinctly Russian spin and thoroughly grounded in contemporary Russian culture. So we still have twelve men serving on a murder case with their deliberations used to reveal something about prejudice and the social climate of the times. This revamped jury finds itself deciding the fate of a young Chechen boy accused of murdering his adoptive father who just happened to be a former Russian military officer. The jurors are taken to a gymnasium near the courthouse, which is undergoing renovations. But the gym's not really in much better shape. Both the court and the gym reflect the disrepair that the Russian state - and maybe even some of its citizens -- finds itself in.
The accused in the new film 12 is a young Chechen boy (Sony Pictures Classics)
Mikhalkov finds clever ways to keep the premise the same yet make it very Russian. Having the accused be a young Chechen boy allows the film to explore Russian prejudices and to examine aspects of the war in Chechnya. How the jurors react to the accused and to each other reveals a lot of about the Russian way of thinking. But the most interesting thing is how the films resolves the case. I don't want to give anything away but the film manages to both be faithful to the outcome the original reached but to give it a very Russian spin that reflects not only the reality of today's Russia but also how Russians see individual and social responsibility. Mikhalkov saves one of the juror's spots for himself and it's his character who gets to deliver the film's fresh take on Rose's original verdict.
The jurors in 12 (Sony Pictures Classics)
Although Mikhalkov takes too long to get to his point - the film clocks in at more than two hours - it proves worth the wait to get to the end. As in the original film, each man gets his soliloquy or monologue but with a more pumped up theatricality that reflects a certain Russian storytelling tradition. Some of the symbolism Mikhalkov employs feels heavy-handed but even so some of it works effectively. The gym, for example, with its deteriorating ducts offers a constant visual reminder of the improvements needed in both the Russian state and its people. It also implies both a physical and moral decay. But other visual motifs are less successful, most notably the Yojimbo riff on a dog carrying a severed arm to convey the level of chaos engendered by the fighting in Chechnya.
The flashbacks to the war in Chechnya are just one way Mikhalkov opens up the film. The wider open space of the gym also allows the actors more room to roam and to pick up props for distraction. Plus Mikhalkov opens up the story with cutaways to the prisoner and to flashbacks of his life. There's a mesmerizing sequence involving the young Chechen boy doing a frenetic dance.
Despite the length, Mikhalkov keeps things moving at a brisk pace with verbal exchanges often sharp and intense. 12 (rated PG-13 for violent images, disturbing content, thematic material, brief sexual and drug references, and smoking, and in Russian and Chechen with English subtitles) has flaws but it also serves up a fascinating study of contemporary Russia.
Companion viewing: 12 Angry Men, A Pure Formality, Burnt by the Sun