Somewhere between the 40- and 60-minute marks of Nikita Mikhalkov’s “12,” a sparrow flies through a window into the school gymnasium that’s serving as an ad hoc jury room for a supposedly routine Moscow homicide case. This is unusual for one or two reasons, the most obvious of which is that it’s the dead of winter. (The window isn’t open, mind you; it’s broken, as is forcefully pointed out by one juror who sees the gym’s sorry shape as emblematic of “40 years of running in place.”) This ups the ante for what’s already shaping up to be an overstuffed socially conscious allegory with its roots in the American, um, classic “12 Angry Men.” “This is it,” this viewer thought, a trifle giddily, remembering an old song by King Missile; “this is mystical shit.”
Because, really, if you’re going to make a self-aggrandizing quasi-allegorical modern epic (160 minutes!) about the state of contemporary Russia, encompassing not just the Chechen problem but the Communist problem, the Jewish problem, the gangster problem, the entrepreneurial problem, the drug problem, the building corruption problem, the culture problem and every other damn problem, why not have a sparrow fly into the proceedings and provide occasional chirpy commentary before setting up an explicitly religious punch line? “12”‘s conceit is, initially, every bit as simple as that of the Reginald Rose/Sidney Lumet drama; after a disorienting montage of what we’ll later learn were scenes from the defendant’s childhood, the director places 12 putatively representative types, all male in this case, into a makeshift jury room in order to deliberate over a seemingly simple crime. An orphaned Chechen adolescent is accused of murdering the Russian Army officer who adopted him and brought him back to Moscow. Of course he did it, the first line of thought goes. These Chechens are all animals, one of the smirkiest of this group of middle-aged guys notes. But wait! A soulful engineer (Sergei Makovetsky) stands up and tells his sad life story, building up to the conclusion that, you know, the quality of mercy is not strained. Then an elderly Jew (Valentin Gaft) takes up that theme. He gets a lot of guff from the smirky guy. And then a surgeon from the Caucasus (Sergei Gazarov) waxes profound, albeit in shaky Russian, on cultural rifts. And so on, and so on. And then they get around to actually considering the evidence. And then all of the jurors but one — no, not the smirky guy, who turns out to be a cab driver with major women issues (Sergey Garmash) — gets to undergo a dark night of the soul. It’s only after all this that the jury foreman — played by director Mikhalkov, very probably as himself, articulates the conundrum that will be the young Chechen’s fate regardless of the verdict.
And if that isn’t enough…well, while the Rose/Lumet film stuck to the confines of the jury room — that was part of the whole formal challenge of the piece, to keep within boundaries without seeming stage-bound — Mikhalkov throws in a whole lot of bombastic flashbacks to the war that the Chechen child was caught up in. These are, admittedly, executed with some brio. Of particular distinction is a truly harrowing firefight that breaks out in two seemingly blasted-out, deserted buildings. Then there are the frequent shots of the defendant pacing in his cell, and eventually breaking out in a Chechen dance that made this viewer wish for Russia to reinstate its death penalty, just for this guy. That sounds glib, but you watch it. Mikhalkov also frequently cuts to a flashback shot of a smoky battlefield, homing in on a dog trotting towards the camera, in blurry focus, with a large object in its mouth. The reveal of the large object is saved for the very end — the better to contrast with that sparrow, you see, but it won’t surprise anybody who’s seen “Yojimbo.”
The polish of the filmmaking here collides with a crudity of thought so staggering as to make “12” something of a unique object. If you, like myself, found the Rose/Lumet film schematic, heavy-handed and well-intentioned to a fault, well, Mikhalkov’s take on the material may cause your mind to split open. As ridiculous as this will sound, it’s the truth: this bombastic film is to its inspiration what the “1812 Overture” is to “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.”