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Place Your Bets on ’13 Tzameti’

Brian Doxtader | Thursday, February 22, 2007

A man walks into a room, having followed the directions on a mysterious package. Once there, he is given a number, a gun and a bullet. Along with 12 other men, he is instructed to load the gun, roll the cylinder and place it against the temple of the man in front of him. He and the 12 other men stare at an unlit light bulb in the middle of the room. When the light bulb goes on, they are told, they must pull the trigger.

Such is the crux of the narrative of “13 Tzameti,” a gripping French thriller from first-time director Gela Babluani. Tense and effective, “13 Tzameti” is a unique examination of the dark underbelly of aristocratic society, and the lengths that impoverished, desperate men will go to in order to gain wealth.

Sebastien (Georges Babluani) is a poor and simple 22-year-old carpenter struggling to support his family. While laying the roof of a house, he overhears a conversation about a package that promises riches. When the man for whom the package is intended dies of a drug overdose, Sebastien intercepts the package and assumes the dead man’s identity. Following the instructions of the package, he finds himself part of a deadly game, in which rich aristocrats place bets on the lives of the participants.

“13 Tzameti” is amazingly accomplished, especially for a first-time director. Gela Babluani gives the film a stylish, darkly seductive appearance, with gorgeous black-and-white cinematography. His sense of camera movement is impressive, and there are several truly fantastic shots. Many of these shots recall the best of classic ‘film noirs’ in the choice of settings, and in the shots’ sparse, stark appearance.

The film is in French, though it’s not a very dialogue-heavy film. Instead, it relies on visual panache to tell the story. In a case of less is more, “13 Tzameti” benefits from its strong compositions and camera movement – in fact, while Sebastien is playing the game, he rarely speaks at all, with most of the story told through the camera and through the characters’ movement and facial expressions.

The acting is quite good. Georges Babluani, the director’s brother, has star potential as Sebastien, embodying the character’s confusion and desperation. Georges Babluani’s character is the clear focal point of the film – it’s as close to first-person narrative as cinema can be. Unfortunately, however, this means that his character is the only one fully developed.

“13 Tzameti” starts slowly, even leisurely, as the opening sequences concentrate on the meager, poor existence of Sebastien and his family.

Reminiscent the look and feel of films by Bresson and DeSica (and, at times, of the French New Wave), its realistic approach draws the viewer into Sebastien’s world, which makes his descent into the bizarre underground more compelling.

At 90 minutes long, “13 Tzameti” is a short film, though it is more effective in its brevity. As straightforward as narratives come, it wastes no time on subplots or story diversions. Instead, it remains focused, concentrating on the plight of Sebastian and the bizarre, clandestine world he is entering.

This is especially evident in the dynamite second act, which revolves around the game itself. The pacing and tension is at its apex, and the open-space beauty of the landscape – which was so prevalent in the first act – gives way to grimy claustrophobia.

The audience is able to sympathize with Sebastien, who seems a victim of circumstances, and his struggle for survival is contingent almost entirely on luck, rather than skill. This separates “13 Tzameti” from typical thrillers, in which characters rely on their brains or brawn to escape their plight. In “13 Tzameti,” however, Sebastien inherently understands that there is no escape, and he has no choice but to play the game and hope for the best.

The film has a lot of philosophical ideas floating around, but the brief running time means that some are not explored as closely as they could be.

Throughout, there are interesting shades of nihilism and, at times, existentialism, especially in the way which human life becomes merely another commodity.

The film is shockingly nonchalant in its handling of death, which is a reflection of the brutal characters portrayed in the film. The ending of the film, however, seems inspired by the pessimism and shocking suddenness of the French New Wave, with its sense of logical inevitability.

While its simplicity as a story belies its thematic complexity, “Tzameti” may have benefited from some additional development. If the film were longer, some of its themes and several characters could have been explored more fully, lending to a better portrait of Babluani’s themes and ideas.

“13 Tzameti” doesn’t have the gloss of a big-budget Hollywood film, which is a good thing. It gives the film a gritty, realistic feel. It’s a dark and often-disturbing film, which may not sit well with some viewers.

Yet Gela Babluani has a great eye and good sense of craft and story. Though “Tzameti” often feels like an independent film, it’s entirely conceivable to believe that it — despite being an excellent film — will probably not be his best. It has such creative energy that it’s more than likely that Babluani has a lot of untapped potential.

Still, as a tense ‘film noir,’ “13 Tzameti” is an effective piece of accomplished cinema. Far removed from the overblown indulgence of blockbuster cinema, it is a simple tale, but one that is well-written.

The film has been received well critically, especially on the film festival circuit where it won “Best First Feature” at the Venice Film Festival and the coveted “Grand Jury Prize” at the Sundance Film Festival. Though “13 Tzameti” was Gela Babluani’s first feature, he previously directed a short called “A Fleur de Peau” in 2002.

“13 Tzameti” will be screened in the Browning Cinema of the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center Friday at 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. Director Gela Babluani is scheduled to be present.