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'12': a Russian version of '12 Angry Men'

Nikita Mikhalkov's contemporary re-imagining of the 1957 classic takes on issues unique to Russia.

March 08, 2009|Mark Olsen

It seems odd perhaps to take such a piece of classic Americana as "12 Angry Men" -- the 1957 film starring Henry Fonda and the feature directing debut of Sidney Lumet -- and transpose it to modern Russia. Yet that is exactly what director Nikita Mikhalkov has done, wringing both universal truths and contemporary specifics from the text.

Mikhalkov's 1994 film "Burnt by the Sun" won the Academy Award for foreign language film, and "12" was nominated last year for an Oscar as well. When it premiered at the 2007 Venice Film Festival, Mikhalkov was given a special lifetime achievement award.

Now opening domestically, "12" involves a jury sequestered in an unused school gymnasium to decide the fate of a Chechen boy accused of murdering his adoptive Russian father.

Though at first all but one juror see a cut-and-dried case of the boy's guilt, they slowly all come to appreciate the twisting nuances and deeper moral implications of the case.

Mikhalkov opens his film with an aphorism that perhaps tips his hand as to what drew him to the material: "Seek the truth not in the mundane details of daily life but in the essence of life itself."

It was as a young man in theater school that Mikhalkov, now 63, first encountered Reginald Rose's "12 Angry Men," directing it as a play, and it stuck with him through the intervening decades.

"I think at that time it just got under my skin and was sitting there, accumulating all these years," Mikhalkov said by phone (through a translator) from Moscow, where he is finishing shooting and editing "Burnt by the Sun 2," which he says will be released in two parts, the first subtitled "Reckoning," the second "Citadel."

Building the jury as a mix of the hardscrabble working-class, the effete nouveau riche and all points in between, Mikhalkov turns the deliberation in "12" into a pressure cooker in which modern clashes with tradition.

"It came to me that this play really would be a great vehicle to show a slice of contemporary Russian society.

"Regardless of their principles or way of life, people should be able to throw away all of their preferences and actually do the work they need to do. In the course of the film, I'm trying to show the reality of what's happening in Russia. In the end, I show what I wish was true."

The film provides a springboard to spotlight moments for the actors, as each character is allowed to have his say. (The filmmaker himself appears on-screen as the jury's watchful foreman.) Based on the strength of his performers, Mikhalkov decided to shoot the film in sequence.

"In the rehearsal process," he explained, "there was so much improvisation from the actors it started to affect the nuance of the characters. So as hard as it was to shoot in sequence, it was important to keep that so you don't lose these little details.

"I prefer shooting my movies in a kind of theater way, having long rehearsals and short shoots."

Also, as the characters talk of their personal beliefs and back story, exploring why they are voting the way they are, Mikhalkov allows for subtle shifts in the film's visual style, in part to tailor each segment to the actors and their characters.

At times, he allows the actors to simply play out the scenes, going for long stretches without a cut.

"I prefer to keep the energy of the actual scenes," he explained of the relationship between his shooting and cutting, "the energy that is transmitted to the viewer should be created by the actors and all the elements in the scene. I prefer to influence the audience that way rather than with sharp editing, which is actually just a forced vision of the director on the viewer, as opposed to an organic way of letting the film develop."

When Mikhalkov is asked how he reached certain decisions regarding the visual style of the film, there is a long pause on the telephone line, the distinct sound of ice tumbling in a glass, and the filmmaker suddenly turns introspective.

"I wouldn't be true to myself if I really tried to dissect it. A lot of that is intuitive work I do as things come along. It is important to me not to disturb that sacred atmosphere."

Running throughout "12" is a recurring image, enigmatic at first but slowly revealed to be that of a dog running from a burning house, carrying a human hand in its mouth with a diamond ring glinting on one of the fingers.

Mikhalkov invokes the shot as he tries to summarize his film's message of tolerance and compassion.

"I think the main message of this movie is if we don't learn to listen to each other, to not only listen but to actually hear each other, no money, no diamonds, will save us from the dogs pulling our bodies apart. We need to learn to hear each other."

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