by Roderick Conway Morris

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Venice Film Festival
Nikita Mikhalkov, at the head of the table, plays the foreman of the jury in '12,'
which he directed and co-wrote.


By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 14 September 2007


12 Directed by Nikita Mikhalkov (Russia)

It has been nine years since one of the most internationally acclaimed Russian film directors, Nikita Mikhalkov, has released a feature film. So the appearance of '12' is something of an event.

The penultimate entry screened in-competition at this year's Venice Film Festival, it was for many the surprise non-winner of the Golden Lion for Best Film. The jury did, however, award Mikhalkov an ad-hoc Special Lion in recognition of his mastery as a filmmaker both in this and his previous works. (His 'Urga' won the Golden Lion in 1991.)

Mikhalkov's latest production, which he directed, co-wrote and acts in, coincides with the 50th anniversary of Sydney Lumet's '12 Angry Men.' Although inspired by the classic Hollywood courthouse drama, it is very different in many ways.

The initial situation of '12' is similar to Lumet's film, in which a young Puerto Rican boy is on trial for murdering his father. His guilt seems obvious, the witnesses reliable enough and everybody on the jury inclined to reach a rapid verdict - until a sole juror courageously suggests that they discuss the case further, and at least consider the possibility of innocence.

In Mikhalkov's film a Chechen youth (Apti Magamaev) stands accused of stabbing to death his adoptive father, a Russian special forces officer, who rescued the boy after his parents were killed in the fighting, and brought him back to live with him in his Moscow apartment.

The story opens when the 12 jurors, all male, retire to an improvised jury room set up in a school gymnasium. As in Lumet's movie, the case seems an open and shut one, but a lone juror raises doubts. The jurors begin to argue, to talk, to reveal more about themselves and gradually, as darkness falls and snow settles in the streets outside, reexamine and even physically rehearse the evidence.

The jurors (whose names, as in '12 Angry Men,' we never learn) include a chauvinist anti-Semitic taxi-driver (Sergei Garmash); a charming old Jewish gentleman (Valentin Gaft); a neurotic variety show performer (Michail Efremov); a scientist with a tragic past (Sergei Makovetsky); a successful surgeon, who is himself from the Caucasus (Sergei Gazarov); and an entrepreneur and owner of cable television stations (Yuri Stoyanov), who is so indecisive that he has to be reminded of the last way he voted. What gradually emerges from their deliberations is a panoramic view of Russia today, with its disappointments, multiple ills, corruption, violent internecine struggles, black humor, sentimentality and enduring hopes.

Cumulatively '12' is reminiscent of a kind of sprawling Russian novel, played out in dramatic form. The many-sided narrative that unfolds in the gymnasium is punctuated by a vivid series of flashbacks of the accused boy's experience of the Chechen wars (in which Apti Magamaev's younger self is poignantly played by his own 7-year-old brother, Abdi). These fragmentary, haunting images of violence are momentary, rather than morbidly and exploitatively graphic, but suggestive of the ferocity of the conflict and the countless personal tragedies suffered by those caught up in it.

The Russian Federation does not have a jury system on British and American lines, so this aspect of the film is imaginary, or perhaps futuristic, given the underlying suggestion that it might indeed benefit from one, as much as it would from confronting its entrenched prejudices with a wider and more open debate. But Mikhalkov is not a didactic filmmaker, always seeking to deal with historical events and social developments through the lives of plausible individuals with all their virtues, faults and contradictions.

Andrei Konchalovsky, Mikhalkov's elder brother (they decided to divide the Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky family name between them some years ago to avoid confusion) made 'Dom Durakov' (House of Fools) dealing with the Chechen wars, which also had its premiere at Venice in 2002. This engaging and daring film was attacked in Russia for being too sympathetic to the Chechen rebels. It will be interesting to see the domestic response to Mikhalkov's treatment of the subject. '12' is a very 'Russian' film, but with universal implications. The drama could, for example, equally involve an Iraqi orphan, adopted by an American officer, facing a court in the United States.

Mikhalkov's '12' has a remarkable and unexpected twist at the end. It suggests two different conclusions: one in the style of Hollywood, another perhaps more in keeping with Russian realities, but not in the manner of, say, Peter Howitt's 'Sliding Doors' - since, strangely and subtly, Mikhalkov's endings are not entirely incompatible, challenging the audience to continue to ponder the issues.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024