Closed-Door Talks: Aleksandr Adabashyan plays a bailiff who oversees the jurors deciding the young defendant's fate.
Milena Botova/Sony Pictures Classics
The title is shorter, but that's the only thing remotely diminished about 12, Nikita Mikhalkov's exuberantly Russian reworking of Reginald Rose's 1950s jury-room play, 12 Angry Men.
Sidney Lumet's 1957 film adaptation, which chronicles the efforts of a dozen jurors to reach consensus in a murder case, feels quintessentially American. Henry Fonda, standing up for "reasonable doubt" while his fellow jurors, pale males all, hurry to convict a nonwhite defendant accused of stabbing his father to death? Who needs baseball, much less pie?
As all-American as that version was, there's a universality to any story of individuals grappling with a group decision. And as Mikhalkov quickly establishes, this particular story plays very differently in post-Soviet Russia.
Here the accused lad is a Chechen Muslim teenager, jailed on charges of killing his Russian adoptive father in a newly capitalist Russia, so there's a wartime back-story involving ethnic hatred and economic tensions.
And in what may be an oblique nod to Chechnya's horrific Beslan school siege, the jury is sequestered not in the court's regular jury room (it's being renovated) but in an elementary-school gymnasium. That location, happily for the dozen variously ferocious Russian performers who inhabit it, is filled with all sorts of actor-friendly props, which are quickly put to excellent use.
The stories the jurors tell, of course, are different from the ones Rose put in his characters' mouths, filled with arguments that reference local tensions and situations possessing a distinctly Chekhovian flavor. As the men consider and reconsider the evidence, they end up offering a vivid portrait of Russian society.
A racist cab driver bridles at an older juror's Holocaust story; a funeral director muses about newfound capitalist ways of cheating the bereaved, a TV producer who sees the world through plotlines proves hugely susceptible to one that involves his family. A surgeon wields both the murder weapon and his own ethnicity as skillfully as he would a scalpel, and a scientist tells of a uniquely success-fuelled descent into alcoholism.
The relationship of the stories to the crime may on occasion feel tenuous, but Mikhalkov does something to connect them with the murder case that Lumet didn't: This version keeps reminding you what the stakes are by letting you see the defendant (Apti Magamaev) pacing his jail cell, flashing back to harrowing experiences he had as a child in the Chechen conflict.
The effect is of opening up the story while making it grandly, emphatically Russian in character. And when a sparrow flies in the room, bringing the outside world in even as it becomes yet another prisoner — the jurors, remember, are themselves locked in until they arrive at a verdict — the story shifts dramatically from the original to ask questions outside the provenance of 1950s American jurisprudence. They're questions that seem wholly appropriate, and thoroughly unnerving, today.