LITTLE ROCK Slavic gloom and Russian dukh - a word that can be loosely translated as "cunning spirit" - permeate Nikita Mikhalkov's powerful and brooding 12, a close remake of Sidney Lumet's 1957 classic Twelve Angry Men.
Lumet's film, based on a play by Reginald Rose, concerns the deliberations of a mostly white, all-male jury in a murder trial in which a Hispanic/black teenager from the Chicago slums is accused of murdering his father. Because of the gravity of the crime, the men are charged with returning a unanimous verdict. Mikhalkov tweaks the scenario by making the boy in his film Chechen. He's accused of murdering his adoptive father, a Russian military officer who rescued the orphan and brought him back to live with him in Moscow after the boy's family was killed.
This scenario is every bit as complicated as the racial dynamic Rose employs in his original story - most of the men on the jury are native Muscovites who are appalled by the "savage" and criminal tendencies of Chechens who they feel are running wild in the streets: 12 is an examination of Russian society and the nationalistic hubris that is a stereotypical part of the Russian character.
While the subtler points of Mikhalkov's gruff politics may be lost on most American moviegoers, it's obvious that he's looking at Russian ideas of class, ethnicity, culture and the relationship of the individual to the law. The film is a morality tale about how our prejudices blind us. Mikhalkov uses his movie to rail against societal corruption and the inefficiency of government.
That's not to suggest that the movie plays like a position paper; in fact, it's an almost over the-top entertainment that allows a dozen actors to indulge themselves with larger-than-life characters who take turns relating woeful Dostoevskian tales of how they became who they are.
Juror No. 1 (Sergei Makovetsky, bearing an uncanny resemblance to a young Karl Malden) explains his vote for acquittal (initially he's the only one) by telling of his fall from grace and subsequent redemption by a good woman. A Caucasus-born surgeon (Sergei Gazarov) is at first shamed by the Chechen's presumed brutality but later discovers his ethnic pride. A brute of a cab driver (Sergey Garmash) is deaf to all logical appeals until he tells the saddest story of all.
Not everything in the movie works. While a sparrow flitting through the school gymnasium where the jurors are sequestered may not be too heavy-handed a symbol of circumscribed innocence, the jury foreman (played by director Mikhalkov) delivers a last-minute pronouncement that very nearly derails the film.While the movie obviously means to make a point about official corruption and laziness, it's a bit of a stretch to believe that the jurors could investigate and solve the case without ever leaving the gym.
Mikhalkov, who won a best foreign language Academy Award for his 1994 film Burnt by the Sun, is a crafty filmmaker who knows how to manipulate an audience. If the ending of 12 is weaker than what has gone before, the overall impact of the movie is stunning. It is a very Russian experience, full of heart and bombast yet resigned to the fundamental terror of the bloodthirsty world.
1289Cast: Sergei Makovetsky, Nikita Mikhalkov, SergeyGarmash, Aleksei Petrenko Director: Nikita Mikhalkov Rating: PG-13 for violent images, disturbing content, thematic material, sexual and drug references Running time: 153 minutes In Russian and Chechen with English subtitles.
MovieStyle, Pages 39 on 05/15/2009