The case before the Moscow jury of 12 men is clear-cut. A Chechen teenager is charged with murdering his stepfather, a Russian army officer. Although the boy maintains his innocence, witnesses clearly identify him as the knife-wielder, and his own attorney hardly bothers to mount a defense.
The judge tells the jury that its verdict must be unanimous, but the bailiff assures the jurors that they’ll be out in 20 minutes. In a quick show of hands, 11 jurors vote for conviction and only a lone holdout asks for further deliberations.
So opens “12,” loosely based on the classic American drama, “Twelve Angry Men.” The film was Russia’s entry in this year’s Academy Awards.
As the deliberations drag on and tempers rise, so do old-new prejudices against the “barbarian” Chechens and also against the “tricky” Jews.
A contemporary voice of the ancient Russian anti-Semitism is a cab driver, whose target is a fellow juror and Holocaust survivor (Valentin Yosifovich Gaft), who becomes the second man to vote for acquittal. He bases his doubts not on any new piece of evidence, but on the belief that “anything can happen.” Like each of the other jurors, the survivor tells something about his life, to shed light on his attitude toward the defendant.
The survivor’s story is less coherent than most of the others, but when his family was in a ghetto during World War II, his father fell in love with — of all people — the beautiful Lithuanian mistress of the resident SS commander. Even more unlikely, the Lithuanian woman in return fell in love with the “scrawny, ugly Jew” — so, you see, anything can happen.
Director Nikita Mikhalkov, who won the 1994 Oscar for best foreign-language film with the Stalin-era “Burnt by the Sun,” has fashioned a remarkable psychological thriller.
As each of the 12 men, from wealthy entrepreneur to surgeon, cab driver and actor, reveal crucial episodes from their lives, we begin to get a feel for daily life in Moscow. There is epic corruption — a cemetery director tells of collecting bribes to assure a decent burial place for the deceased — but also spontaneous generosity and even civic courage.
Always looming in the background is the savage fighting between Chechen guerrillas, who view themselves as freedom fighters, and Russian soldiers, who see the enemy as ruthless terrorists.
“12” opens March 6 at three Laemmle theaters, Royal in West Los Angeles, Playhouse in Pasadena and Town Center in Encino, as well as Edwards West Park in Irvine. For more background on the film “12,” visit www.sonyclassics.com/12.