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Third film based on Boris Akunin's "Priklucheniya Erasta Petrovicha Fandorina" series of novels. On a train from St. Petersburg to Moscow general Khrapov was killed and no one else but ... See full summary »
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A loose remake of 12 Angry Men (1957), set in a Russian school. 12 jurors are struggling to decide the fate of a Chechen teenager who allegedly killed his Russian stepfather who took the teenager to live with him in Moscow during the Chechen War in which teenager lost his parents. The jurors: a racist taxi-driver, a suspicious doctor, a vacillating TV producer, a Holocaust survivor, a flamboyant musician, a cemetery manager, and others represent the fragmented society of modern day Russia. A stray bird (a touch of New Age cinema) is flying above the jurors' heads, alluding to tolerance. Written by
Jury deliberations turned into operatic national debate
In Mikhalkov's preposterously overblown remake of Sydney Lumet's Fifties jury deliberation drama 'Twelve Angry Men,' a Chechan teenager (Apti Magamaev) is on trial for the murder of his adoptive Russian father. To begin with, as in the Fifties movie, one man initiates a long complicated process of reevaluation by voting "not guilty" when everyone was prepared to send the boy off to life imprisonment and go quickly on their way. In the original he was Henry Fonda, whose air of probity was impeccable. This time he's a successful inventor with a lurid alcoholic past (Sergey Makovetsky) and he sets no standard of probity. Though "reasonable doubt" is mentioned (one of the jurors has studied at Harvard and has the phrase in his head), the dissident vote has no logical or specific basis. He just sort of thinks it was a good idea to vote the other way.
Forget what happened in court; the meaning of the case; the analysis of the evidence presented. '12' focuses on the lives, the traumas and prejudices of the participants; the turmoils of a nation--and finally, most peculiarly, on what's best for the accused, be he innocent or guilty.
'12' is elaborate, illogical, and absurd. In terms of jury deliberation it is absolutely ridiculous. But it puts on a great show.
We are somewhere around Moscow. The twelve worn out, middle-aged men are locked by the bailiff in a school gym. And this is emblematic of the film's style. The men may be locked in, but they have a lot of room to play around in. No mere solemn deliberations around a long table for them--though there is a long table, and they do intermittently sit at it, these heavy-set, darkly garbed men, with a cluster of plastic water bottles in front of them.
Never for very long, though. In the course of the drama the twelve jurors throw a ball at a basketball net and a hypodermic at a dart board, or lift weights or play a piano. They restage the crime in a mockup of two matching apartments. They throw knives, and to prove a point, one threatens to stab another. They wander around, smoke, send off alarms, throw up, rage, sob. Mikhalkov is shamelessly prepared to do absolutely anything to keep this from being just a lot of talk. Hence the gym and all its accouterments, which include a giant disco reflector ball, an auxiliary lighting system, moments of total darkness, candlelight and spotlights, a large decaying heating pipe, and a wheelchair. And, the corniest possible symbol of confinement--a lone sparrow. And a series of independent "arias" when one juror or another gets up and does a long dramatic monologue about himself.
But that isn't enough. In the middle, there is a giant explosion, and there begin a series of flashbacks to the Chechan war, with fires and bombs and a dog running past the camera with a severed hand in its mouth. There are also many images of the accused as a boy, cowering among the rubble, or as a prisoner, dancing around in his cell in a down coat to keep warm.
Nonetheless '12's so successfully full of itself that it makes its over two and a half hours go by before you know it--despite a lot of wasted time and sloppy excess. Through the jurors' wild digressive monologues Mikhalkov and his co-writers Vladimir Moiseenko and Alexander Novototsky-Vlasov almost succeed in redefining what deliberations are about. But ultimately they are simply distracting us from the fact that he's only using the deliberations as a hook on which to hang all his thoughts about Russia's modern journey and the meaning of life.
The deliberations, therefore, aren't about the case. They're about the jurors (this figures in Lumet's film too, but more quietly). A belligerent bigot cab driver (Sergey Garmash) calls Chechans "savages" and assumes the boy is guilty. He attacks the elderly Jewish intellectual (Valentin Gaft) who's the second to switch his vote to "not guilty." He intimidates the Harvard man, a TV producer and a caricature (Yuri Stoyanov) into a fit of nausea and paranoia that leads him to change his vote back to "guilty." And later a reenactment awakens such painful contrition over his own violence as a father that he switches, late in the game, to "not guilty" himself.
A surgeon (Sergey Gazarov) sympathizes with the boy because of his Caucasian origins. A self-made man with sympathies for the underdog, he rejects the cabbie's bigotry early on. He also does a carnival turn showing off his back-home skill at knife-twirling. The director himself plays the jury foreman, who has his own surprise twist toward the end to disrupt things after it seems unanimity has been achieved at last.
What are we to make of all this? It must be seen more as an epic, operatic riff on the theme of Twelve Angry Men than a contemporary Russian re-imagining of its original concept. The concept of the law is remote from ours. In fact there is an epigraph to the effect that though the law is steadfast, mercy may take precedence over it. And there is no doubt about the reasonableness (amid all that is surreal here) of such concepts coming to mind when jurors must deliberate in a murder trial.
I lost tract of the reasons why various jurors changed their minds. When one did, usually somebody else followed suit. It was to be expected. One forgot to ask why. And in the end, '12' violates our essential notions of what a jury trial is about: that it has to do with arriving at a fair and accurate decision about a specific case. This can't possibly be called a good movie. But it's too vivid, entertaining, and rich in ideas to dismiss out of hand. As an artifact of contemporary Russia it is a mine of information--though all to be taken with a grain of salt.
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