Tuesday, September 30, 2008

EIFF: 12

Not having seen the original 12 Angry Men, I can only imagine how this Russian version compares—and anyway, I doubt the similarities and differences are particularly important to an appreciation of the film. This is more of a Russian take-off on the premise of the Hollywood original, with the defendant a Chechen youth accused of killing his adoptive Russian father, and the jurors all standing in for the different strata of contemporary Russian society.

I admit that there’s something kind of fun about this film, even as it flirts with, and finally succumbs to, the inherent absurdity of its set-up. Maybe I was a little charmed by the conviction and energy it brings to its most ridiculous conceits. If you can’t go for subtlety, you might as well at least go for gusto, right? But very quickly, the film falls into the rhythm it sustains for almost the entirety of its two and a half hour running time: a juror delivers an impassioned speech about his personal history, and then changes his vote on the verdict. This is Acting, capital-letter style—red-faced, spittle flying, strings on the score, camera cutting between close-ups of the speaker and the other jurors, who often sit agape in silence (probably mentally rehearsing the lines for their own monologues, I like to imagine).

If nothing else, this is entertaining bombast, although its formula does begin to increasingly grate on the nerves. I appreciate the point—that to be truly merciful and just we must see our own suffering in the lives of others—but between all the scenery-chewing, the characters barely find time to actually justify the innocence of the accused (and I should add that the scenery being chewed in this case is a school gymnasium, which if nothing else gives an indication of the sophomoric acrobatics we’re in store for) .

This monologue method reaches its most frenzied peak when one juror delivers a bizarre, rambling speech about how his uncle inadvertently became regarded as a terrorist. As the man speaks, he paces furiously around the table where everyone sits, watching in amazement and confusion. The man is pacing so fast he is almost running, and the speech is punctuated by the sound of an alarm clock periodically going off in his suitcase, which he kicks until the ringing stops. To top it off, he pulls out a bottle of nasal spray in the middle of speaking and sprays first into his nostrils, then his eyes, and finally, inexplicably, his ears.

This is funny stuff, if only for how it parodies the other speeches—the distracting pacing, the nonsensical actorly tic of the nasal spray—but it also makes the audience conscious of the posturing of the other actors. As we dutifully move from speech to speech, the absurdity of applying this method to every single character becomes increasingly apparent, and the whole formula reduces the accused to something of an after-thought. Ultimately, the film is hokum, plain and simple. Well-intentioned, delivered with panache, but hokum all the same.

(I should note that 12 was nominated for a best foreign film Oscar last year, which should come as no surprise. The Academy has always been a sucker for this sort of high-powered entertainment with a gloss of social significance. Of course, it lost to the World War II movie.)

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