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Statues and Limitations: Nikita Mikhalkov's "12"

By Eric Hynes | Indiewire March 5, 2009 at 11:40AM

[An indieWIRE review from Reverse Shot.]
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[An indieWIRE review from Reverse Shot.]

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. Instead of a Spartan jury chamber, deliberations transpire in a vast gymnasium replete with free weights, heavy balls, piles of discarded furniture, and a piano. Instead of twelve personalities, there are twelve screaming stereotypes of the Russian male, from misanthropic cabbie to prissy media mogul, dim-bulb Soviet has-been to a jovial surgeon from the Caucasus. Instead of static shots and extended close-ups, the camera tracks, circles, lunges, and cranes. Whether he's underscoring verbal declarations with foley thunderclaps, whipping his cast of A-team character actors into emotive frenzies, or tacking an extra sixty minutes onto Lumet's running time, Mikhalkov's a maximalist. Although not as sentimentally picturesque as his Oscar-winning "Burnt by the Sun," or as gleefully tacky as his soapy epic, "The Barber of Siberia," "12" bullies its way to a sort of poetry, privileging a handful of purpled images to endless refrain.

Ditching Lumet's spatial and formal integrity, Mikhalkov indulges in cutaways to the accused -- a Chechen teen -- dancing about Billy Elliot-style in his prison cell (to the rhythm of imaginary tribal drums) while flashing back to events from his traumatic life. Contrary to what the film assumes we expect, the boy isn't the average murderous Chechen: despite his exotic ways and Roma attire, he loves his mom, obeys his dad, and avoids the swarthy warmongers that parade through town. When his parents are brutally murdered, the culprits are Arabesque enforcers, not the crusading Russian army. He's even rescued and adopted by a kindly Russian soldier -- the father he's eventually accused of stabbing to death.

What seems like a Lumetian call for tolerance, with the jury gradually reversing the boy's fortunes, is really just a roundabout confirmation of Russian righteousness. Despite broadly affirming stereotypes (even the kind Caucasian surgeon, when pressed, unleashes a fierce, knife-wielding jig), Mikhalkov places Chechen salvation at the feet of Old Father Russia, in "12," played by none other than Nikita Mikhalkov. As foreman of the jury, with a kick-ass goatee and slicked-back mullet, Mikhalkov presides silently over the histrionic deliberations until he's the final holdout for acquittal. Though he agrees that the boy is innocent -- he naturally had the case solved well before anyone else -- he wants to convict the boy in order to save him, since he'll live longer in prison than out on the streets. Whether or not the boy is freed (I'll not spoil the resolution), Mikhalkov -- who's revealed to be both an artist and an army officer, natch -- vows to become the boy's guardian and seek extralegal justice.

How did we get here from Henry Fonda extolling due process in a sweat-stained suit? One of "12"'s jurors, who later speaks elegantly about the virtues of corruption, offers a theory: "A Russian man will never live by the law. It bores him." Having said similar things in the real world -- and having been a vocal proponent for a constitution-defying third term for Vladimir Putin -- Mikhalkov seems to believe and support this. Apparently the Russian soul, the Tsarist impulse, and propagandistic kitsch know no bounds.

[Eric Hynes is a Reverse Shot staff

This article is related to: In Theaters







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