12 Angry Russian Men

I was in the mood to sit in a dark room and eat popcorn Thursday evening so I scanned for a movie of interest, and failing that–I just can’t muster any interest in The Class but maybe this will be the week!–settled on a little film called Phoebe In Wonderland, which is yet another teacher drama, but of the single student variety I think, rather than the teacher goes and teaches underprivileged kids variety.

But when we got to the theater, it wasn’t playing! I’m still not sure how I made the mistake, but when we got there the Russian movie 12 was playing. Well, excellent, I actually wanted to see that.

12 is a Russian take on 12 Angry Men. It lost out at last year’s Oscars to The Counterfeiters. Yay for finally getting 2007’s best foreign films in 2009. Just for the record, the other three films nominated were Mongol (reviewed here), Beaufort (which we skipped) and Katyn (which I still don’t think has come around).

Of course the original is a dramatic masterpiece, tight as a drum and gorgeously staged and composed, so remakers must beware. (William Friedkin’s mid-‘90s is a respectable update.) And, of course, it’s a distinctly American story.

Just to top it off, the original is The Boy’s favorite movie. (It was on-demand last summer and we watched it one night, and then he asked to see it again the next night.)

So, lots could go wrong here.

However, this isn’t really a remake. The framework is the same: 12 men are locked in a room in order to decide the fate of a boy who allegedly killed his father. The evidence is overwhelmingly against him, and a lone holdout keeps the argument from being settled quickly. In the end, he sways the other jurors, and a murderer goes free.

Wait, that might not be how it goes. (Interestingly, Greg Gutfeld mentioned on “Red Eye” a few weeks back that he thought 12 Angry Men was the turning point in the culture wars. He didn’t elaborate, but given that the authorities are wrong, and a bunch of people are about to send an innocent boy off to die, it makes an interesting thought.)

But where the American version is a tale of forensics against which the personalities of the jurors emerge and reveal bias and irrationality, this sprawling Russian version mostly skips the forensics. The jurors, in turn, reveal some personal story or aspect of their lives, and this sways voters to the other side. (Some of the deductive reasoning of the original surfaces, but at one point–when the twist is revealed–a character runs through the forensic points that were overlooked, a nice homage to the original.)

The pressure to convict quickly also comes from the authorities: The baliff is a comical figure who can’t believe they’re taking as long as they do, even as he makes long distance phone calls on the cell phones he’s appropriated from them. But the implication is that most deliberations are over in a couple of hours.

Russian culture and society is on trial here, too. In this setup, the boy is a Chechen, the adopetd son of a retired Russian soldier. The sequestration is broken up by flashbacks showing how the soldier came to adopt the boy, and also by shots of the boy (now grown) in his cell. (One of the jurors is Jewish, and anti-semitism comes into play, too!)

The whole movie is both heavily laden with symbolism and bogged down in the reality of the effects of a society that’s lived under the oppressive thumbs of dictators for as long as anyone can remember.

I kept thinking, “Wow, so that’s what a jury deliberation in a dead society looks like.” Not that this should be taken as a documentary, but the Soviets’ impact is still being felt, with absurd testaments to their waste and corruption everywhere. “Everyone’s in on it” a character says at one point. The despair is palpable.

And yet, this is a hopeful movie. It’s by turns moving, absurd, tragic, funny and grim. Very Russian, as one character says.

And, it has a twist ending. Right about the time the original ends, there’s another character who starts arguing back the other way! And he makes an excellent point! Actually, there are about four points where it seems like the movie is going to end, and the last two endings seem rather gratuitous.

All-in-all, a fairly captivating 2 ½ hour flick. The Boy was pleased. And I got to practice my Russian ears. So, win-win.

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