Russia (2007) Dir. Nikita Mikhalkov
“The law is all powerful and constant, but what can be done when mercy has a greater force than law?”
This potent quote from the pseudonymous B. Tosia closes this contemporary Russian remake/adaptation of the classic 12 Angry Men, relocating the sweaty 1950’s US jury room to a wintry school gym in Moscow, could easily have been applicable to the 1957 original but has a deeper meaning in this context.
A young Chechen lad (Apti Magamaev) stands accused of having murdered his Russian foster father. The twelve all-male jury are sent to deliberate their verdict, under the instruction that only a unanimous decision will be accepted. For many, both within and outside of the jury, this is an open and shut case but when the vote is held, one juror stands alone in voting “not guilty”.
Even if you’ve not seen the original, the plot has been duplicated and lampooned enough times to make a complete recap unnecessary, but it is how Nikita Mikhalkov fleshes out the story, effortlessly transposing the drama to modern day Russia and making it such a compelling first time viewing experience that is key to this discussion.
The basic framework has been strictly adhered to vis-à-vis the core facts of the case, the varied demographic of the jurors and the importance of the outcome beyond a group of strangers not wanting to spend all day on this when they have other concerns that need their attention. However, one crucial difference between this at the original is how Mikhalkov doesn’t restrict the narrative to just the jury room, venturing outside not just to the accused in his cell but into his past too.
In the original the accused was a Puerto Rican embodiment of the unruly rock-n-roll teenagers of the 50’s; in this adaptation he is an orphaned survivor of the First Chechen War (1994-96), rescued and taken in by a Russian soldier. Flashbacks are randomly shown of the young lad making friends with the rebel soldiers to the concern of his pacifist father, and his subsequent struggles to survive among the fighting.
As with the original, the loudest objector in the case is racist cabbie juror #3 (Sergei Garmash) who has decided that all Chechens are scum and no Russian would act the way they do. He is quick to mock an elderly Jew juror #4 (Valentin Gaft) for his esoteric philosophical approach and clashes with #7, Caucasian surgeon (Sergei Gazarov) for his mixed background.
Leading the “not guilty” vote is #1 timorous inventor (Sergei Makovetsky), but unlike his US counterpart played by Henry Fonda’s, this belief isn’t solely derived from a nagging moral doubt but from his own experiences, providing the film with its central leitmotif of each juror relating a personal story that has shaped his personal point of view.
We still don’t learn any of the jurors’ names – except the foreman at the end, played by Mikhalkov himself – but we do get to learn about them. Running over an hour longer than the US version affords Mikhalkov’s film this luxury and while not all of the stories are completely relevant to the case – one elderly juror’s ramblings are just that – they offer a rare glimpse into the mindset and life experiences of this disparate group.
Naturally, this has led to the film being received as a divisive commentary on modern Russian society, some calling it pro-Putin (who reportedly shed a tear watching it) others praising its boldness and honesty. As an outsider, the idea that Mikhalkov is venting his spleen with some of the monologues is palpable and he has good reason to, yet one can sense some balance in his words regarding his feelings on justice and humanity.
Back to the central story and the key scenes remain intact, such as the exclusivity of the knife and the forensic deconstruction of the witness testimonies. The spacious gym setting allows the physical demonstrations to take on a new life with added credibility to the opposing view, as well as offering the jurors plenty of distractions during the speeches rather than being huddled together around the table.
Yet the sense of claustrophobia still prevails even with a wider playing field as they are still locked in and the tensions continue to rise the further down the line they go with their deliberation. In a major twist, the failure to reach a unanimous decision comes from a surprise juror, his explanation not as obstructive as you may think, presenting a cogent and passionate argument coming from a genuinely humane perspective.
The film is heavy with symbolism. Most prominent is the gym, located in the school inexplicably built next door to the courthouse, a temporary measure due to unfinished renovations. The facilities are fairly poor, with the original hastily fitted, poorly lagged pipes hanging overhead from 1967, and an old piano is locked in a cage. A small bird flies around the gym, a metaphor representing hope and freedom, since it can go wherever and whenever it wants.
Visually Mikhalkov is able to offer much more than Sidney Lumet could in 1957 and makes good use of this, be it the war scenes or the exploring the gym. One particularly striking tableau shows the body of a dead solider hangs among the ruins of a bombed house, the rain pouring down his body, along his arms and onto the face of his dead comrade below. Simply chilling and stunning at the same time.
Along with a superb cast, every one of who inhabit the skin of their characters with astute credibility and nuance, no two jurors are alike let alone replicating their American predecessors, Mikhalkov has captured the moral spirit of the original but suffused it with the urgent and prevalent concerns of a different society without diluting the central message.
It is unfair to make direct comparisons between 12 and 12 Angry Men but they should be viewed side-by-side to see how an American classic can be successfully adapted to another culture. Sublime.