Gela Babluani's first film is a stark, neo-noir thriller. Just kidding, but that's what every other review has said in a nutshell. I guess the noir tag isn't too far off. There are detectives (though they aren't that instrumental to the plot), it is in black and white, and it is extremely tense. I guess the stark tag comes from the black and white film, which is the cliche way to describe such a film with serious themes.
13 was written and directed by Gela Babluani and stars his younger brother George. They are the sons of famed Georgian (that would be the country) director Temur Babluani (I don't know who that is either).
The story starts with Sebastien (Babluani the younger) working as a laborer in a small coastal city of France. We see that his family is living in near poverty and that they depend heavily on Sebastien's wages. Apparently, they are Georgian immigrants, but I would never have known if I hadn't read up on it. Sebastien is working for a morphine addicted criminal who is quickly running out of money.
While working on the hole in his roof, Sebastien hears his employer talking about going to Paris to get in on another score where he is hoping to bring home a substantial sum of money. Days later, the employer overdoses leaving his mistress penniless and unable to pay Sebastien for any of his work. By fortuitous chance Sebastien finds the letter containing the ticket to Paris with instructions. Down on his luck and unable to bring himself to tell his family that he wouldn't be paid, he takes the ticket and goes to find his fortune in Paris (think Antioni's The Passenger).
Little to his knowledge, Sebastien has a determined detective on his trail, as his former employer was under surveillance. Through clever means unbeknownst to Sebastien, he avoids the police and makes it to his destination none the wiser.
Sebastien's youthful naivety and innocence is abounding. He has had a fresh hair cut and wearing his best (and probably only) pair of dress shoes. Once he meets his sponsors though, things go beyond his control. Circumstances dictate that Sebastien now has no choice but to take the dead man's place as his sponsors stand to lose money and credibility if not. He is only referred to by his number for the game, 13.
The game to be played is similar to Russian Roulette, except that it involves several guns at once. The players stand in a circle, put a bullet in their pistol, spin the cylinder, and fire (think The Deerhunter). They all stand to make a lot of money or lose their lives. Black and white. Sebastien wants to run, but he is trapped and surely dead if he refuses to play.
What follows is an extremely intense film, unrecommended for those with high blood pressure or pussies in general. Some say it is a commentary on the free market economy, supposedly showing what people will do to earn a quick buck or make ends meet.
However, the protagonist actually tries to back out once he discovers what he must do. The other players are either junkies addicted to the adrenaline or have some sick fixation with the game and money. The free market economy comparison is tenuous at best, and at worst, stupid.
Babluani himself said it was a movie about violence. He relates to the violence that he saw in revolutionary Georgia and puts it into a different context. Much as Sebastien is an unwilling participant to this game, Babluani was probably in a similar dilemma growing up in war-torn Georgia. Their is also speculation that this type of twisted gambling actually takes place, as evidenced by interviews and film commentary. Babluani simply took the idea and ran with it, expanding the concept of a taut and depraved 'game' into a look at the effect of violence on the pysche, intertwined with his own experiences as a Georgian immigrant in France.
The result is one of the best freshman film efforts this renowned critic has ever seen. Tzameti has its flaws, sure, but it more than makes up for them in other aspects. The most common complaint was that the premise couldn't support a feature length film.
It is true that not much really happens in this movie in terms of actions and time. Their are a few events and a few consequences. However, each act has so much weight behind it that the consequences of it are rarely anything but dire. Sebastien's original choice leads sets off a domino effect that snowballs until he is no longer in control, much like how Babluani purposefully directs the action. The viewer may want to turn away or take a breather, but we are forced to join Sebastien's terrible journey. Perhaps even harder to imagine are the few minutes between each round where the thinning group of players are calming their nerves through drug and drink, trying not to think that their life could end in the next half-hour.
The idea of circularity plays a large theme in this film. The barrel of the gun. The circle they stand in while playing the game. It could be taken to mean any number of things, but the circularity of violence is a clear thematic expression made in this film. The Russian Roulette circle expresses it on a topical level, but the deeper circle of depravity and wont of care for human life is evident.
Higher stakes, more money, more bullets, everything spirals downward until one man is standing and it begins again. The camera swivels around the inside of the circle. We see a frame with a player's arm extended, cut off at the wrist, another arm is coming from the other side of the frame holding a gun pointed right at the player's head. It gives the impression that he is killing himself, which, he essentially is by taking part in this game. But, what happens when the player is there by mere circumstance?
These and other questions are all at play in 13 (Tzameti). While the film examines deeper issues, it remains at heart a thriller. Anyone who said it was predictable is a really bad liar. Babluani builds tension so effectively that the release isn't even important. It is one of the best thrillers in recent memory, original and daring, yet also stands out as example of directorial brilliance. Babluani made a remarkable first film and I will eagerly await to see what he comes up with next.
DVD features include interviews with cast and crew, an interview with a man who claims to have taken part in the games depicted in the film and a hilarious short film (that is, if you enjoy watching old ladies shoot themselves in the face).