For almost a century now, Russian cinema has been a cinema of metaphor. This was especially true, and especially necessary, during the Soviet years, when a dialectic occurred between a government that stifled expression and a body of artists who eked out what they could.
The writer/director/actor Nikita Mikhalkov has done this elegantly for more than 30 years in films like Slave of Love, Oblomov and Burnt by the Sun. His dramas, drawn from Russian history and classical literature, have always been, as much as they could be, about the Russia in which he lived at the time.
So it's a bit jarring to watch his new film, 12, and not have to read between the lines. Sure, there's subtext, but there's plenty of text as well -- little jabs (and some big ones) at Russia's struggle to become a free society. And his neo-Russian drama is an aging American one, a retelling of the classic 12 Angry Men, the story of one lone juror who won't vote "guilty," and the reluctance of the other 11 to come to justice.
Nothing much about this old saw changes in a Russian context. One by one, as the jurors stumble toward unanimity, they share life-altering moments that happen to reflect on the issues at the heart of the case before them: Did a Chechen teen-ager kill his adoptive Russian father, an Army officer, to rob him of his 7,000-ruble pension? The man knew the boy from occupying his town during the war, and he rescued him in the heat of a battle and took him to Moscow. Why, then, some years later, would this ungrateful Chechen dog turn on the man who saved him?
It's 11 to 1 on the first ballot, the lone holdout being a physicist who pulled himself up from self-destruction and invented something useful. Soon he's joined by the jury's sole Jew, whom some of the others suspect of using convoluted "Jewish logic" to trick them. But his logic -- and a re-enactment of the crime -- persuade a few more. Some bombastic bullying from a guileless Chechen-hater persuades a few of them back.
The jurors represent a good cross-section of Russian life: a surgeon, a taxi driver, a Harvard-educated businessman, an undertaker. Some of them just want to find the kid guilty and get home. Others hate Chechen immigrants for overrunning Moscow. They're all men, although the judge (who appears only briefly) is a woman, and few of them seem particularly comfortable with the concept of American-style justice.
It's a littler harder to follow who's who and stay connected in a multi-character drama where you don't recognize any of the actors, who don't bring a persona to their roles the way movie stars would. But Mikhalkov is an adroit storyteller, and he focuses on the key advocates one by one, allowing us to catch on to the various sides of the conflict.
While part of 12 flashes back to the boy's wartime life in Chechnya, Mikhalkov mostly unfolds a robustly acted locked-room drama that takes little pokes -- Russian cinema never takes big ones -- at the emerging New Russia. The jurors must use a gymnasium as their makeshift jury room, and they sometimes forget to call each other "gentlemen" instead of "comrades." The gym has a piano, locked behind a cage, but the bars are big enough for the physicist to tickle out a melancholy tune. "Workers of the world ... let's vote," says one juror, and another quips tartly: "A Russian man will never live by the law. The law bores him."
Mikhalkov seems to be telling his comrades -- uh, countrymen -- that freedom is theirs to attain if they want it ... but also that it comes with a social responsibility to look after one another. And he ends 12 with some symbolism that you could drive a tank through. Early in the film, when the vote is 10-2 for conviction, the Jew, one of the holdouts, irritates his adversaries when he coolly reflects: "There are 10 of you and two of us. We should be worried." It's a cagey reflection on survival against insurmountable odds, one of many graceful moments in Mikhalkov's sturdy film. In Russian and some Chechen, with subtitles.
Starts Fri., May 15. Harris