Leave it to a pair of 20-something émigrés from the ex-Soviet republic of Georgia to turn in the year’s best snuff film. A debut feature, cast with French unknowns, 13 Tzameti takes viewers on an existential journey down an awfully grim rabbit hole. Once in its grip, you won’t blink till the end, but be forewarned: Rife with European stereotypes (everyone smokes, and there’s a lot of face-slapping), the opening act borders on melodrama, and there is such a peculiar sense of post-war milieu, that the appearance of cell phones and bubbly VWs almost seems anachronistic. In such an innocuous guise, director Géla Babluani hooks viewers with a seductive visual tone that builds from slow burn into a wildfire.
At 22, Sébastien (George Babluani) has already led a laborer’s life. A penniless roofer in some anonymous, seaside village, his ennui is marked by plaintive, distant stares, as he moves about his day in rote assignments. He solemnly schleps ladders from site to site; dines unceremoniously with his father, who barely speaks; and wonders what currency his life has. When a hole quite literally opens beneath him, Sébastien is pulled into the final, crumbling moments of Jean Francois Godon, a morphine addict who whispers cryptically about participating in some nebulous enterprise that promises riches. Sébastien overhears just enough of Godon’s scheme to awaken his latent urge to escape. Seizing an opportunity, he assumes the old man’s identity and impulsively journeys into Paris, where a labyrinth of clandestine and increasingly ominous meetings await.
The surprisingly intrepid boy finds himself navigating through a vicious, high-stakes game, brokered by wealthy businessmen. Exposing the dark indulgences of the ultra-affluent — sound familiar? If you’ve already seen Eyes Wide Shut, don’t tune out just yet. Unlike Kubrick’s tawdry cinematic coda, 13 Tzameti doesn’t carry such pretensions of ego or lusty elitism; it is as much indifference as desire that motivates Sébastien, and escape from the mundane may be reward enough. Raised in Tbilisi amid the destitution and savagery of a civil war, the Babluani brothers knew intimately the struggles facing Georgia’s underclass, and through their protagonist they deftly articulate its pathos. Sébastien moves about as if resigned to his fate, but once drawn into a world of consequence and immediacy, his vigor awakens. As brutish realities descend upon him, Sébastien is forced to confront survival in its most raw form – at last realizing his considerable mettle.
13 Tzameti may be a black and white crime piece, but it’s more new wave than noir, clutching to a skeletal narrative that chooses veracity over manipulation. And while budget may have dictated its trim look, were it shot in color, 13 Tzameti would be no more convincing. The story benefits from an unpolished finish (though rumor has it, Hollywood has optioned a glossy remake). It is Géla’s sublime direction, and George’s ability to bottle both fright and exhilaration, that thrill.
The elder Babluani knows just when to let the action speak for itself, whether coaxing a country wind, or giving silence the same treatment he gives the otherwise mischievous, French score. He reveals the world in pieces, feeding us only glimpses and bits. Dialogue is sparse, often overlapping, and seldom serves as anything other than background. Géla trusts the camera to artfully hide behind faces, itself an onlooker, peeking over seats on a train; capturing only the edges of a room. He encourages our voyeurism, approaching the taboo onscreen like Sébastien himself, a stranger in a strange land.
When at last we learn in stark absolutes what’s in store for our protagonist, it comes like some inexorable nightmare. Junkies and thugs stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our unlikely hero, now known only by the number 13, stitched on his shirt. Each is handed a revolver and a single round, as the lens moves in circles, capturing each player’s anxiety in a dizzying portrait of hopelessness. All of us – the numbered men, the jacketed gamblers, and the audience – are locked in, breathlessly waiting the moment when a life will end. The message seems simple enough: With a gun to the head, all men are equal – or at least equally damned. But Babluani means for us to see the opposite. The film is a sermon on the inequity of men, as proletarians are played against one another for the financial gain of a callous oligarchy.
There are distinct parallels between 13 Tzameti and Eli Roth’s Hostel (both released in 2005), and one wonders if there’s any fidelity to their myth. Though they belong to different genres, both fetishize vulgar displays of power, even glorifying the Caesar-like aristocrats who run these cultish games. But where Hostel celebrates grind house sadism and its gory results, 13 Tzameti works in more subversive ways. Babluani treats his antagonists with greater respect than Roth gives his one-dimensional demons, imbuing them less with predatory glee than with a cold sense of amorality. It isn’t wanton bloodlust that drives these people, but the ability to objectify and wager on fate, the one thing they can’t control with absolute authority.
Babluani’s carnage is philosophical, its bleak violence a metaphor of our will to oppress. As such, 13 Tzameti feels less like a treatise on Man’s appetite for destruction, than an indictment of his inescapable urge to play God (fans who crave further satisfaction will delight at the faux ‘Interview with a Survivor’, included in the DVD’s bonus features). Parallel to this earnest condemnation, Babluani speckles the script with cheeky references to his subtext. One can’t help but smile when a gambler exclaims theatrically to his pawn: “Be philosophical about it. You’re a descendant of Schopenhauer!” There is satire at play here; absurdity both in the subject and (occasionally) Babluani’s portrayal of the subject. Between rounds of death, men play piano, trade jabs, inject dope, and nurse their trauma with booze. Such is life.
It’s hard to root for anyone who so willingly walks into the lion’s den, but Sébastien wins sympathy for the resonance in his eyes. Hyper-aware of the precipice on which he teeters, the boy projects elation, terror, and even smirking arrogance, intoxicated by surrealism. George’ expressive versatility belies his inexperience as an actor, and coupled with Géla’s assured direction, the two make a strong case for nepotism.
Indeed, the brothers Babluani both earned César Award nominations – France’s highest cinematic honor – for their work. The film itself won the Jury Prize for World Cinema at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, securing it a small, distinguished place in the pantheon of low budget movies most Americans will never see. But 13 Tzameti is worth seeking out. ‘Low budget’ is a misnomer that should be reserved only for films that fail to persuade for lack of design, or talent. 13 Tzameti has no such difficulty. The horror isn’t graphic, but lean and visceral, and undeniably effective. It’s a timeless coming-of-age tale to truly fear, one that proves both the singular desires and aimlessness of human existence. Tzameti means “thirteen” in Georgian, and it serves to remind us that, irrespective of translation, certain reputations are universal. Bad luck for most, perhaps, but good luck for us.