The New Positive Hero: Masculinity and Genre in Recent Russian Cinema
Symposium 2009

12

Russia, 2007
Color, 153 minutes
Russian with English subtitles
Director: Nikita Mikhalkov
Screenplay: Nikita Mikhalkov, Vladimir Moiseenko, Aleksandr Novotskii
Cinematography: Vladislav Opel'iants
Design: Victor Petrov
Music: Eduard Artem'ev
Cast: Sergei Makovetskii, Sergei Garmash, Aleksei Petrenko, Nikita Mikhalkov, Valentin Gaft, Iurii Stoianov, Mikhail Efremov, Sergei Gazarov, Aleksandr Adabashian
Producers: Nikita Mikhalkov, Leonid Vereshchagin
Production: TriTe

Nikita Mikhalkov has taken Sidney Lumet’s 1957 film Twelve Angry Men as the staring point for his latest meditation on the Russian condition. A Chechen youth has been charged with the murder of his adoptive father, a Russian army officer who had rescued the orphaned boy in the chaos of the murderous war in his homeland. Although a unanimous verdict among the jurors in Russia is not even required, Mikhalkov sticks to the basic drama of Lumet’s earlier film: one dissenting voice against conviction ultimately sways the other eleven to join him in an acquittal. Unlike the American version, the crux of the problem in the Russian film is not the application of the law and the presumption of innocence, but the articulation and application of a much more nebulous concept of justice. The verdict is clearly meant to apply to more than just the lone Chechen youth who is facing prison for life. As the marketing blurb for the film insists: this film is “for all [of us] and about each one [of us].”

What can be said with certainty is that whatever artistic merit the film has rests in large part on the performance of a spectacular cast. Mikhalkov has assembled a veritable pantheon of many of Russia’s most accomplished and talented actors. Sergei Garmash and Sergei Makovetskii, in addition to Mikhalkov himself, give particularly vivid performances. Their various monologues grow into individual miniature dramas in themselves that at times seem to rival the larger frame of the film.

The roles are not chosen at random, but each is clearly meant to embody a certain social type. The stereotypes are not of a single coherent category of representation, however, but rather are drawn from disparate social configurations: thus we have the national types of the Jew, the Ukrainian, and an ethnic representative of the Caucasus; the occupational types of the cab driver, the graveyard worker, and the metro constructor; and the cultural types of the western-oriented liberal, the national-chauvinist, and the technocrat. From a film by Mikhalkov, we expect there to be some clear ideological position taken with regard to the question of Russian identity and the current historical moment. But it is terribly difficult to work out the political or ideological message of a film in which the cultural signals are of such various kinds, the signs are so multi-valent, and the interpersonal clashes occur on such disparate thematic planes. The concerns have more to do with personal demons, love, and betrayal, rather than with facts, law, or the empirical truth. If one thread seems to run through the various monologues and confrontations, it is the insistence that the redemption both of individual and of society is possible despite the festering sins of the past and the lingering ruins of the present.

The one figure in the film that resists stereotyping is that of the jury foreman, played, of course, by Mikhalkov himself. He holds his cards close for more than two hours of the film’s running time. His quiet calm, punctuated by a few crucial interventions, suggests that he may hold for us the ideological message of the film. But nothing in the action of these first two hours prepares us for the sudden sharp turn taken in the plot when the foreman finally reveals his position on the question of conviction or acquittal. In a sovereign, almost imperious gesture, Mikhalkov–the foreman reveals that his own identity is also a very Russian type, embedded within a venerable State mythology. Mikhalkov–the director thus pulls the rug out from under us and reveals that the state of affairs is not at all what we have been led to believe.

This conclusion (actually, multiple conclusions) to the film strikes many critics as overly audacious, fantastical, and infuriating. But the ambition of this film can only be properly appreciated within the larger cultural context of Russian cinema. As rigorously as the American legal system maintains the separation of Church and State, so fervently does Russian culture insist on the intimate bond between kino and State. Thus, just as Americans often define their collective identity in terms of their relation to (or against) religion, so do Russians (even Orthodox believers) often expect their national cinema to offer collective orientation in a confusing and changing world. It is only with this cultural context in mind that we in the West can hope to understand the phenomenon of Nikita Mikhalkov and the enthusiasm with which much of Russia’s viewing public has received the latest cinematic instruction from one of their oldest and most decorated teachers.

Nikita Mikhalkov

Nikita Mikhalkov (b. 1945)—actor, director, scriptwriter, producer, industry organizer, public figure—has been one of the most important and influential members of the Soviet and Russian film industry for several decades. Member of a famous family of artists long honored by the State, he has been the most visible manifestation of the relationship of cinema to public and political life in his homeland. He began his professional training as a theater actor but ultimately graduated from the State Institute of Filmmaking (VGIK) in 1971. Both within and outside of Russia, his films have won prizes too numerous to mention. He was elected President of the Russian Union of Filmmakers in 1998, a position that he is, as of this writing, fighting to retain.

Selected Filmography:

2007 12
1998 Barber of Siberia
1994 Burnt by the Sun
1993 Anna: From Six Till Eighteen (documentary)
1991 Urga: Territory of Love (a.k.a. Close to Eden)
1990 Hitchhiking
1987 Dark Eyes
1983 Without Witnesses
1981 Kinfolk
1979 A Few Days in the Life of I.I. Oblomov
1979 Five Evenings
1977 Unfinished Piece for Player Piano
1976 Slave of Love
1974 At Home Among Strangers, A Stranger At Home

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