“But what can be done when mercy has a greater force than law?” This question opens the movie “12” (2007) by Nikita Mikhalkov.
In “12,” a dozen middle-aged white men in a grade-school gym debate and pontificate regarding the fate of a Chechen youth. Meanwhile the accused hunkers down in a dim, cold, concrete stronghold.
For the sake of a smooth transition, since we’ve talked at length about Tarkovsky, there is plenty evidence of his influence in this movie. Note the way that Mikhalkov’s film idles on nature in the beginning sequence, encompassing a bicycle ride in the Russian countryside and an official holding forth from a dais, inexplicably situated in the same backdrop. The succeeding image of the rider’s mother, surrounded by greenery in a meadow, is highly reminiscent of scenes from Tarkovsky’s first film, “Ivan’s Childhood” as well as his third and fifth films, “Mirror” and “Nostalghia.”
It is no surprise to find similarities the works by these two directors. In addition to being Russian, they can both claim Michael Rhomm as their film school mentor. The utilization by both directors of music by Eduard Artemyev rounds out the comparison. You may wish to refer back to the support material on the DVD of “Solaris” to reacquaint yourself with Artemyev.
In case you have not watched this movie yet, this film is a master class in cinematic efficiency. The gag with the model train horn, for instance, demonstrates how easily twelve men can be moved in one direction, on the spot. Yet how scattered they become when logic’s introduced. Why should such a fine tool as reason be so divisive? Because, with it, we can so easily mislead ourselves.
To begin with, the jurors are put on lockdown, which does not go down entirely well with all. The director cleverly intercuts this segment with the incarceration of the young Chechen in his holding cell. As the captives settle down into their respective confinements, yet a third captive is introduced. On one wall of the gymnasium, caged in iron bars three feet off the ground, stands a piano, still and silent, a protest for the way that a jail cell squanders human potential.
Over the course of the jury’s proceedings, two of the twelve men are compelled to play the incarcerated instrument despite the inconvenience of stretching overhead to the max, between bars, to caress the keys. This multi-tasking imagery can’t help but ask, if brilliant concertos can be coaxed from eleven octaves, then why not at least a crude harmony from a dozen average Ruskies?
I’ve not yet looked up the song titles those men are actually playing. They are undoubtedly significant. The metaphor develops even further, later on, when the action cuts abruptly to a different piano going up in flames after a firefight. It evokes Tarkovsky once again, but more to the point, what a heavy metaphor for how punishing a fellow human being in our society is a bit like burning a piano for some music that was played on it.
Savor the sublime testament in favor of Mercy this passage exudes. We are all like pianos, to some degree. Are we not all practiced on by society? So, can we be entirely responsible for the sounds we make?
With typical Slavic wit, it is a scientist, in “12” who floats the only “not guilty” vote in the beginning, throwing apathy’s gyre off kilter and it is an artist that holds out for the guilty charge to the bitter end. Ironically, after the others become convinced of the Chechen’s innocence, they must reconsider their verdict due to potential ill consequences the others previously neglected to fully comprehend. The accused may be innocent, but he’s safer in jail than on the outside, where he’ll most certainly meet a violent end.
The script for “12” is impeccable. When one thing moves, everything else does too. Besides those eighty-some ivories mentioned before, there also flies one tiny sparrow and a duo of contradicting blades. Even so, for better or worse, this story’s arc is mostly cranked by verbal escapades.
Mercy versus judgment and the script exploits a wide range of emotions in the space between. The confrontation is heightened in the way the action is staged. The camera’s constantly prowling up, down and around the long, narrow table. I prefer less talky films usually, with the assumption that moving pictures were made for more than just recording history and lit, but the cinematic mastery practiced in this movie unfolds all its deeper mysteries.
Contempt and jealousy alternate with bouts of shame and conscience. The balance of prejudice and self-doubt are re-sifted each time a juror recasts his vote. Condemnations and true confessions compete, low murmurs and high pitch rants may fluctuate, but the tension ramps steadily as each actor riffs on themes of guilt and self-hate.
Cut back to the hole where the Chechen boy’s fate methodically unfolds. His jail-bound pacing to-n-fros turn into an ethnic dance, we saw him engaged in before; in front of some soldiers, when he was a boy.
He’s hot-footing now, not to impress us but to keep alive and dancing without the benefit of actual blades this time. That’s not the point and never was. Witness how the whirling roots his frame and sets his spirit in flight. Could there be a more apt representation in that moment for a universal spirit that unites?
I was dismayed when a friend of mine recently told me that the director of “12” has become a right-wing bully in his country. I’ve never been to Russia and I don’t tune in that station, nor can I presume to understand the country’s language or customs. I barely have a sense of Russian history, so don’t take any of this as firsthand but, for a great director to become more a part of the problem than the solution, I find that hard to understand.
Admittedly, I have researched very little. Reports in Wikipedia and IMDB are too vague to draw conclusions. I’ve watched his movie again and again though and I think it simply can’t be true. A person who manipulates with hate over the public air waves would never be the same as the one who exhibits such respect for humanity on the international cinema scene. But in huge, complicated countries such contradictions sometimes do occur. Despite the puzzling news, we’re going ahead in our analysis with “12.”