Since the prologue of the film “12” is a quote invoking mercy, let us follow mercy’s progress through the story. It’s not about letting a crime go unpunished, but becomes the antidote to punishing unjustly.
A school gym is empty except for a lone sparrow. A flock of middle-aged jurors files in and starts carrying on like kids. Deciding the fate of their fellow human being’s future starts out much like sport, replete with hoops, nets and parallel bars. Before long, the quest will be compared to a junkie’s fix, a little later, a coke fiend’s bliss, before the jury is ultimately, soberly dismissed.
I read the introduction of those loaded props in the early proceedings as a charge of responsibility, to each individual in society, for overcoming personal indifference. In the long game, evolution will refine this tendency out of us, or else. It’s just one more misguided death wish. Let’s let it go now, before its too late…?
A marooned bird is an apt metaphor for the central figure in this controversy too—a young Chechen perched under the punitive screw. It is not insignificant that this young man has already been made an orphan by a war that took both his father, step-father and his beautiful mother, too. In my country we don’t hear much about Chechens, except for their quarrel with Russia over sovereignty issues. I have just read twenty minutes worth of Wikipedia about them. They have brown, black or red hair and brown, green or blue eyes. They are a people associated with the Caucasus, as far back as 3000 B.C. The majority of them are Sufis, but their religion, before Islam, centered around sex, death and the hunt, just like the rest of us.
The Chechens are fiercely independent. They have a saying “enter in freedom.” Their totem animal is the wolf because wolves are both cooperative and independent. Like wolves, their numbers have dwindled over the centuries, defending depleted homelands.
I cannot speak for Chechens nor for Russia, so I will compare their story to a story from my own neighborhood. Although they’ve survived here for thousands of years, Native Americans, in the region where I live, have been marginalized on their own land for generations. For millennia, they’ve led sustainable lives here in northern New Mexico. Then came conquistadores and missionaries, followed by government agencies. We’ve all heard the story; in less than 200 years, they’ve become of the most underfed groups in the country. Its is not only unjust, it’s reckless. The hearts and souls of the twenty-two tribes living in the Southwest U.S., in the 21st century, are utterly and intricately intertwined with this land. We can never fulfill our potential here unless we do it hand-in-hand.
Getting back to this masterwork of modern Russian cinema, a maxim of drama known as Chekov’s gun, is whittled at, imaginatively, in the script of “12”. The rule states “if you say in the first chapter there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.” It becomes extra-specially relevant when the lethal weapon in “12” happens to be a high-tech special-forces blade. While a few jurors do make use of it, threateningly, to state their point, none of them is killed or maimed. The symbol is spiked with indictments of arms trade. It implies that guilt for this felony spreads back, through the supply chain, to anyone that profits financially, no matter who’s convicted, or toward whom the weapon is aimed.
Summoning scrutiny’s sharpest intent, the murder weapon’s lethal tip skewers reams of litigation and written testament. A replica of the same weapon, introduced in a similar way by a dissenting juror, exposes how this major piece of evidence, admitted deceptively, generates a major misconception. It also elucidates how facts can easily be construed to promote one point of view, to the exclusion of another, but the sword of truth always cuts both ways.
At midpoint, the sparrow makes herself obvious by taking flight through the room, landing on a table set out with the food trays. An often-shared quote from the good book starts out, “consider the birds of the field, they neither toil nor sow…” That little bird says to me, “let us reconsider again, since people and birds co-exist, voluntarily, for the sake of shared needs, why not everybody?
The recurring clip of a dog running down the middle of the road, with a man’s hand gnawed off at the wrist, is possibly a bit more pessimistic. Mercy gets stripped to the bone. Incidentally, that hand and dog are a nod to Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo” (1961). I first saw that medieval Samurai showdown in a 16mm print, projected on a living room wall when I was still a teen. My friend Ben was very keen to show me.
I next watched “Yojimbo” a decade later at some rickety Rocky Mountaintop cinematheque in the 80s, at the instigation of an Aikido practicing friend of mine. Neither of those times did I care that the character played by Mifune was committing a great act of mercy. The dog with the hand was the one thing about the film I never forgot. With that one frame, Kurosawa convincingly maintains, war’s only winners are the beasts feasting on the remains.
The influence of John Ford on Kurosawa is well-known, followed by Kurosawa’s influence on the spaghetti westerns by Sergio Leone. “Yojimbo” has been imitated endlessly. I just found out, incidentally, by researching it, that the dog and hand image has been re-appropriated perhaps as much as any other shot in motion pictures since. I’s inclusion may be meant to lament the last turn of events in “12.” For what began looking like a story of redemption, ends up twisting into just one more turf war being fought. If you don’t know “Yojimbo,” it too has a gangster plot.
But, drilling still straighter for the core of “12,” I consider it near genius how the folk dance that the young Chechen demonstrates, twice, at the onset of two momentous passages in his life, aims the knife, not outward, toward an enemy, nor anything unkind, but tucked inward, it becomes an extension of his own spine.
Please, allow your attention to spread into this eddy with me, temporarily. How much of all that is fine about humans is involved in the act of turning in place? Gravity is our adversary until we adopt ambulation. How much more grace is exercised if we advance, through practice, to whirling. To straighten up and spin right is to transcend our weight, times our height, at least. There’s liberation to be leveraged there. Whirling is also useful for venting pent-up aggression. A healthy society should practice martial arts and folk dance together, in combination, to provide a full range of creaturely emotions with a civilized means of self-expression.
Likewise the knife is similar to a cross in design, delineating folks who are primarily cruel from those primarily kind. It is not as simple as black and white, since we are all composed of both, to differing degrees, but justice alone does not wield the sharpest blade. If apathy is the dulling trait we each most need to self negate, mercy is a most deserving edge to activate, by all peoples, parties and states.
Let’s not forget, “12” is an all out homage to the original film “Twelve Angry Men,” (1957) by Sidney Lumet. The movie exudes the morality of half a century ago. The decision to remake “12” for the present day argues that, no matter how much times change, our core values stay the same.
I was sure the motion picture version must have been adapted from a stage play but, in this case, it flowed the other way. The American production was stacked with Broadway heavyweights, no less, but the film script is from an original teleplay.
As many a great storyteller has done before, Mikhalkov no sooner delineates what legitimately divides us, than contradicts with proof what binds our fate. Four separate votes, involving twelve men, over the course of a long night, is what it takes.
Revealingly, the most steadfast juror is an artist, portrayed by Mikhalkov himself. He is the one who maintains his convictions, from the very start, and backs them up more than anyone. Inviting the accused to move in with him is the very pinnacle of artistic élan. In this script, the director of “12” proclaims the virtues of mercy to his fellow man.