Just from the standpoint of a dramatic-filmic challenge, the Russian movie 12 takes on some seemingly imposing math. For two-and-a-half hours, we are mostly ensconced in an enclosed jury deliberation room with 12 alternately bored, angry, impassioned, justice-seeking, soul-bearing men from radically different outlooks and social stations. An all-important 13th character lurks in the shadows as cutaway shots and vivid flashbacks detail the crime in question-a Chechen boy’s presumed murder of his stepfather in Moscow. In short, this is a trial film with several twists, not the least of which is the complex story of modern-day Russia.
For this intriguing and deceptively simple film, director Nikita Mikhalkov takes director Sidney Lumet’s classic 1957 film, 12 Angry Men, as its inspiration and structural template. In the original, a Latino youth is charged with murder, a role here switched to a hapless Chechen youth, who’s subjected to racist assumptions and “profiling.” What emerges, ultimately, is a condensed portrait of post-Soviet life in Russia and its perturbed outlying regions-especially the hot spot of Chechnya. Hints of the still-settling transition out of communist rule arrive early in the film, as the jurors address each other: “Comrades, I mean gentlemen : let’s start.”
Start they do, and stop and restart and shift directions, in a slow parade of revelations and socio-philosophical debates. If at first, 11 of the dozen jurors smugly deliver a guilty verdict in a vote, the call to moral considerations by one juror (the role memorably played by Henry Fonda in the original) sets off a protracted session. Through it all, Mikhalkov manages to keep the dramatic energy flow steady, and moving in waves of emotional intensity, as the jurors themselves become the focus of scenarios revealing their various sorry stories and biases. The camera work is anything but minimal, roving around the room restlessly, capturing the agitated spirits in the room, and slowly working toward a clarifying resolve.
By the film’s satisfying ending, we feel that we’ve been through the theatrical wringer, with a narrative atmosphere at once familiar and foreign-but less foreign than it might initially seem.