Nikita Mikhalkov: 12 (2007)

reviewed by Seth Graham© 2008

A dozen men—who represent an artistically gerrymandered cross-section of society—are sequestered in a jury room to decide the fate of a teenage boy on trial for murder. The informal conversation as the men prepare to deliberate indicates that they expect to be on their way home within minutes, since the prosecution's case is so compelling. Sure enough, the first vote is 11:1 in favor of conviction. Two-plus hours (and more than a dozen monologues) later, the 1 has persuaded the 11 to join him on the other side of the colon, so to speak, and vote for acquittal. This is the familiar plot of Sidney Lumet's 1957 film Twelve Angry Men, based on Reginald Rose's 1954 teleplay (Rose also wrote the screenplay for Lumet's film). Fifty years later, Nikita Mikhalkov has adapted the story for a 21 st century Russian audience, and the resulting film, despite its small cast, narrow narrative focus, and unitary setting, is ultimately concerned with the same ambitious question Mikhalkov poses in his other, more epic productions: What Is Russia? The director's answer this time around is once again articulated via a patented mixture of metaphor, masculinity, and monologism.

This is not to say that 12 is not an engaging, expertly shot, and well-acted film by a seasoned professional and a high-caliber cast and crew. It provides 150 entertaining minutes, especially for Russophiles, which is one likely reason the film was submitted as Russia's official 2008 Oscar nominee as Best Foreign Film. That is a position in which Mikhalkov, of course, has found himself before (winning the Oscar for his 1994 film Burnt By the Sun [Utomlennye solntsem]), but in this case it is more impressive, considering that the director shot the film during hiatuses in the production of his much “larger” film, Burnt By the Sun 2 .

In their visual and demographic diversity, and their shared enthusiasm for performing, the characters in 12 are like a contemporary, hypertrophic Russian version of the Village People: an engineer who went from rags to riches after inventing a cell phone diode (Sergei Makovetskii); a gruff, racist taxi driver (Sergei Garmash); an elderly Jew (Valentin Gaft); an effete New Russian television producer (Iurii Stoianov); a surgeon from the Caucasus (Sergei Gazarov); a comic actor (Mikhail Efremov); a cemetery director; the son of a high-ranking Soviet bureaucrat; a liberal “democrat”; a simple-minded metro employee; and a retired officer (Mikhalkov himself) who spends his leisure time painting watercolors and serving on juries. Each juror's autobiographical monologue functions not only as character development, naturally; each presents the recounted life history or event(s) as part of the juror's rationale for his vote. Many of the stories are about redemption. Fatherhood is also a leitmotif, both in the monologues and in the story of the twice-defathered Chechen boy (in Rose's original play it was a Puerto Rican boy) on trial. The emphasis on paternal and filial relations, as well as the intricacy and quality of the script, is likely due in large part to Mikhalkov's co-screenwriters, Vladimir Moiseenko and Aleksandr Novotskii, who also wrote the acclaimed 2004 film The Return (Vozvrashchenie; dir. Andrei Zviagintsev).

Although the performances are mostly very good, Garmash's working-class xenophobe stands out because his is the best-written role and because he is played by Garmash, Russia's best and hardest-working character actor. Almost all of the film's inevitable interpersonal conflicts involve him: the chauvinistic prole vs. the transplanted Caucasian; the chauvinistic prole vs. the soft New Russian mama's boy; the chauvinistic prole vs. the old Jew; the chauvinistic prole vs. the comedian. The screenplay steers clear of overt references to Soviet and post-Soviet politics, except for two brief moments of friction between the “democrat” and two of the other jurors, the former communist bureaucrat and Garmash's aforementioned working man.

Unlike Rose's play or Lumet's film, Mikhalkov's version cuts away from the jury room several times in order to fill in the accused boy's back story. He was the son of a couple in Chechnia who were unsympathetic to the anti-Russian resistance. Indeed, the family was close friends with a Russian officer, who would later adopts the boy and bring him to live with him in Moscow as his son. There, the (now-retired) officer and his ward become the victims of an elaborate financially-motivated conspiracy by organized crime (almost a de rigeur motif in contemporary Russian film dramas), a scheme that the jurors collectively uncover over the course of their loquacious deliberations.

The setting, a school gymnasium being used by the court while the jury room is being remodeled, is an excellent choice and allows for much more (literal) action than the claustrophobic room in which the Rose/Lumet version of the story takes place. For one thing, claustrophobia is not a sensation readily associated with Russia, especially in the context of the broad ruminations on her past, present, and future in which Mikhalkov and his characters engage here. For another, the gym equipment and space provide the jurors with a setting and props for their elaborate recreation of the crime. The gym is put to full metaphorical use, as well: with its large windows and the snowstorm whirling outside them, it is a microcosm of the hothouse society that was the Soviet Union. The various evidence of the school kids who use the gym during the daytime—a syringe and a brassiere are the most prominent—allow the jurors to comment on contemporary youth. A piano locked in a cage is a trope that speaks for itself. A dangerously leaky hot-oil pipe that was installed “temporarily” in 1967 provides the metaphorical impetus for Mikhalkov's climactic monologue about the country. Finally, a sparrow (an image Mikhalkov used in The Barber of Siberia [ Sibirskii tsiriul'nik , 1998], as well) is deployed as a rather obvious symbol in the film's weak epilogue, which adds yet another platitude to the image of Russia represented. Still 12 is a highly watchable film that is commendably less platitudinous than some of Mikhalkov's other recent contributions to the Russian national conversation.

Seth Graham
University College London

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Twelve, Russia, 2007
Color, 153 minutes
Director: Nikita Mikhalkov
Scriptwriters: Nikita Mikhalkov, Vladimir Moiseenko, Aleksandr Novotskii, based on a screenplay by Reginald Rose
Cinematography: Vladislav Opeliants
Production design: Viktor Petrov
Music: Eduard Artem'ev
Cast: Sergei Makovetskii, Sergei Garmash, Aleksei Petrenko, Nikita Mikhalkov, Valentin Gaft, Iurii Stoianov, Mikhail Efremov, Sergei Gazarov, Aleksandr Adabashian, Apti Magamaev
Producer: Nikita Mikhalkov and Leonid Vereshchagin
Production: TriTe

Nikita Mikhalkov: 12 (2007)

reviewed by Seth Graham© 2008

Updated: 10 Jan 08