Nikita Mikhalkov

BY Katarina GligorijevicPublished Aug 4, 2009

This Oscar-nominated film is a strangely stage-y Russian version of the ultimate jury-room drama, 12 Angry Men — the Lumet version, not the William Friedkin TV version. While the issues are updated for contemporary Russian life, the themes of prejudice and racism are the same. In this version, a Chechen man (Apti Magamaev) is on trial for allegedly knifing a Russian Army officer. While Lumet's tense classic took place in a sweaty, cramped jury room, Mikhalkov's version takes place in the dead of winter. The jurors are sequestered in a grungy high school gym while the prisoner awaits his fate in a bleak cell. The Chechen man (who remains unnamed) relives his life on the front lines via a series of flashbacks juxtaposed against the obviously middle-aged jurors deciding his fate, who've clearly never been close enough to a war zone to even hear bad language. Much as in Lumet's version, here the validity of the jury of "peers" is immediately called into question. A soft spoken engineer (Sergei Makovetsky) is the lone hold-out in the room, remaining unconvinced of the young man's guilt. Predictably, and for the usual reasons, the remaining 11 jurors are slow to come around to his point of view. Of course, the debates are engaging and this type of suspense-based plot is hard to mess up, but the enjoyment in 12 comes from watching the jurors retry the case in their isolated gymnasium while also getting to see, and sympathize with, the accused man, who in all previous versions of this tale has remained an off-screen phantom. The Chechen boy endures war, the destruction of his home, the death of his mother and countless other hardships while the rest of upwardly mobile Russia continues to live comfortably. It's a bit heavy-handed but Mikhalkov's wry humour paints a very damning picture of post-Communist Russia and what men there must do in order to survive.

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