The centerpiece of "13 (Tzameti)" is an epic and organized game of Russian roulette. It’d be ideal to go into the film not knowing this fact; it’s also impossible to discuss the film without mentioning it. Fortunately, distributor Palm Pictures’ marketing materials have rendered moot any dilemmas we may have had about preserving a sense of mystery.
GÃ©la Babluani, Georgian-born, French-educated, 26 when he directed the film (his feature debut) has made what sounds on paper like a brash, misanthropic boy movie. It’s miraculously not, not really â€” its nihilism is strikingly naive and straightforward; it’s sometimes grimly funny, but never smirkingly so. Babluani has managed to make a 60s art-house film, and while we’re more admiring than enraptured by the results, "13 (Tzameti)" is still as refreshing as a cool six-pack on a warm summer morning (well, how the hell do you start your day?).
Part of the film’s retro appeal comes from its being shot in exquisite black-and-white CinemaScope â€” all the better to captured the fine lines of star George Babluani‘s (the director’s brother) face. He plays SÃ©bastien, a Georgian immigrant working as a roofer in France and living with his family in the kind of impassive misery that only Eastern Europeans on film seems able to pull off. Working on a crumbling estate, he overhears the frazzled, drug-addicted owner’s enigmatic plans to make what’s apparently a great deal of money, and when the man dies of an overdose he sets off in his place, following instructions he intercepted in the mail. On his journey he unknowingly evades the police surveillance set up outside of the house â€” one of several moments in which we’re forced to consider the random events that shape one’s fate. SÃ©bastien ends up in the gloomy basement of a bustling house in the woods in which men from around the world have gathered to gamble on the ultimate high-stakes sport.
What saves the film from the novelty of its concept is that it is never not grounded in realistic details. The game is fantastical; the approach to it is not, from the type of men who make up the players â€” drug-addicted, frantic, demented, dying â€” to the obsessive implimentation of the rules. The betting audience treats the players as some mixture of prizefighter and race horse, ridiculous in light of the fact that the game is entirely based on luck, for all of the strategy and superstition that’s assigned to it.
George Babluani holds the film together as SÃ©bastien, a character who’s desperate and foolish enough to get into the mess he does, but not desperate enough to belong there. He’s not heroic, but he’s smart enough to realize he has to play, and he wants to stay alive. In one scene in particular, he, a trembling wreck, faces another man (the superb AurÃ©lien Recoing of Laurent Cantet’s "Time Out") who was violent to him before, but in that moment before they find out who will die can only express a kind of tender misery â€” it’s inscrutably powerful and moving, and it’s too bad that by the film’s bleakly ironic ending all it seems to offer is an arresting picture of the blackest depths of human abasement.
+ "13 (Tzameti)" (Palm Pictures)