A new Russian film, based loosely on “Twelve Angry Men,” the classic television drama starring Henry Fonda and featuring a host of great actors, including Lee J. Cobb, has just debuted in a commercial run in New York, to favorable review. I was privileged to see it at a pre-screening for reviewers the other week.
In ‘12,’ as in the American production, the jury is stopped from an immediate vote to convict the defendant for murder by the resolution and astute observations of one man. This film is remarkable for keeping the audience’s attention for all of its two and a half hour length.
It is set mostly in a dilapidated school gymnasium, used as a jury room because of the lack of an appropriate space in the neighboring courthouse still under construction. It was surprising to learn that this was in Moscow and not some provincial backwater. The state of neglect in evidence, the on-and-off availability of electric power and the exposed heating pipes all testify to the incomplete transition to modernity and prosperity of contemporary Russian society from its Soviet days to the present.
The defendant is a teenage Chechen war orphan who is accused of murdering his adoptive father, a retired Russian army officer who had served in the Chechen war and befriended his family. The boy’s parents were among the 100,000 or more who have died in this conflict.
Since my journalistic beat is mostly related to Israel and Jewish subjects, I look for Jewish angles. The only explicitly Jewish connection is that one of the jurors is an old man who is a Holocaust survivor. He is the second juror to back away from a quick guilty verdict and is then taunted by an antisemitic cab driver in the group, for his sly “Jewish” reasoning. Each of the jurors in turn provides his personal history; the Jew is the first, and the cabby the last in eventually revealing why he is the way he is – not in anyway exonerating his bigotry, but movingly explaining his bitterness.
There is also a surgeon described as a “Caucasian,” meaning that he could be Chechen or of some of the many other ethnic minorities who have migrated in large numbers from the Caucasus into central Russia, and have experienced much prejudice and hostility in doing so– a bias voiced by more than one of the other jurors.
What animates this story cinematically are the flashbacks to the defendant’s former life with his loving family in Chechenya and to the scenes of death and devastation that haunt the film throughout. The Chechens are but one of many ethnic groups that Russia has mistreated since Tzarist times, first with military conquest in the 18th and 19th centuries and then with mass deportations under Stalin, and now again in the post-Soviet era.
I make no claim that the brutality of the recent Russian re-conquest and re-occupation of this country excuses Israel of the wrongs committed in its name in the Gaza Strip and in other Arab-populated territories. There are parallels between the two conflicts in that both Israel and Russia are battling Muslim nationalists who resort to terrorism against foreign occupation and domination. But this other far bloodier conflict is but one of many that does not trigger world-wide protest – in contrast to what Israel experiences with sickening regularity.