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Statues and Limitations: Nikita Mikhalkov’s “12”

Statues and Limitations: Nikita Mikhalkov's "12"

Nikita Mikhalkov and Zurab Tsereteli may not be widely known in the United States, but they are arguably the most famous artists in post-Soviet Russia. Tsereteli, a painter and sculptor, shares with filmmaker Mikhalkov a fondness for prerevolutionary nationalism, Russian Orthodoxy, and Tsarist pomp. After several American cities declined his 500th anniversary gift of a mammoth Christopher Columbus statue (oddly Christlike atop a dwarfed ship), Tsereteli made alterations, called it Peter the Great, and had it installed in the middle of Moscow. That Peter the Great famously hated Moscow, that a statue of a man at the wheel of a ship makes no sense in a landlocked city, and that the object’s towering ugliness so offended some aesthetes that they attempted to obliterate it with dynamite hardly mattered. Taste and good sense were no match for stubborn, spectacular kitsch. Like Tsereteli’s statue, Mikhalkov’s new film, 12, his first feature in nine years, takes an iconographic source and pumps it full of Russian grandeur. Few films are more self-consciously American than Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men, a strident chamber piece about the corrupting powers of prejudice and the enduring wisdom of the U.S. Constitution. Though the Russian legal system diverges greatly from America’s, and though Mikhalkov has no interest in revisiting the minimalist virtues or democratic values of Lumet’s film, his funhouse-mirror reflection of an American classic takes on a fascinating Putinesque sheen.

There’s a weird joy in watching Lumet’s classic travestied. While not as emblematic as The Grapes of Wrath or To Kill a Mockingbird, 12 Angry Men, based on a stage play by Reginald Rose, is the kind of sturdy, comfortably dated good-for-you movie that’s universally praised but scarcely willingly watched. Mikhalkov doesn’t just “open up” the theatrical text—he tears and tosses it like confetti. Click here to read all of Eric Hynes’s review of 12.

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