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End Game: Gela Babluani’s “13 Tzameti”

End Game: Gela Babluani's "13 Tzameti"

Oddly, the current greatest fear as reflected in our moviegoing consciousness isn’t of widespread terrorism or megaton catastrophe. Yes, large-scale disasters and toppling monuments are served up for our delectation as always; they’re still making as many “Poseidon“s and “War of the Worlds“s as you can shake a stick at, and no matter how much contemporary trauma is writ large on them, they’re still gonna be cut from the same genre cloth. No, currently, true horror and panic onscreen has been reduced to something far more individually tactile, yet at the same time, so far from our comprehension. Human trafficking, forced prostitution, people becoming unwitting participants in some kind of freakish underground secret ring of conspirators just waiting out there in the woods or some anonymous building complex–this is the new global terror, of paranoia and loss of control and individuality, yes, but even more so, that of global commodification. Lukas Moodysson‘s “Lilya 4 Ever” and Eli Roth‘s “Hostel,” both repellent but awfully hard to shake, used melodrama and horror, respectively, to tap into this newly widespread anxiety, in which a human being seems as easy to purchase as a pair of beach clogs off of Amazon.com.

Like a crasser, palm-sweating, higher death-count version of Robert Bresson‘s “L’Argent,” Gela Babluani‘s “13 (Tzameti)” furthers this trendy tendency by focusing, shrewdly, on monetary exchange (the last image on the screen before the opening titles begin is of a stack of bills being counted). The film’s hapless protagonist, the 22-year-old Sebastien, played by the director’s brother, Georges Babluani, will also invite simplistic Bressonian comparison, for his existentially vacant, handsome mien, yet as the film chugs along at a nicely engaging clip, his blank stares grows increasingly engaged, almost as if he’s jolted into existence.

And jolted are we, as well. Sebastien is a repairman, living in an undisclosed location and class, but from the drab environs and sad eyes of his mother and siblings, we can ascertain a certain level of lower-middle-class struggle. When his current boss suddenly dies of an overdose, he overhears his wife discussing a secret envelope, the contents of which could lead to some sort of fortune. Thinking this could be the answer to his family’s financial worries, Sebastien foolishly takes the envelope and embarks to an unknown destination. He finally discovers, and becomes trapped in, a sort of flesh trade, a terrifying underworld of professional gamblers who have seemingly found the ultimate betting game, while simultaneously upping the ante on any extreme sport or reality TV competition the world has ever known.

What he’s caught up in here, along with us, is someone else’s sense of morality; it’s resonant because we feel it every day, in less extreme situations–it may not be our set of values, but it is our world, and there’s no way out. “Hostel” boiled it down to the same old tourist xenophobia (and homophobia and misogyny), but Moodysson and now Babluani are onto something more valuable and tangible–an entrapment borne out of economic desperation. It’s a credible portrait of a social mindset that seems at once alien and wholly familiar, and the Georgia-born and raised director has the well worked-out sense of daily toil and hardship that comes with witnessing a country’s difficult transition from Soviet republic to independent nation.

Sebastien doesn’t necessarily choose to participate in the horrific games he’s roped into, yet once he is forced into competition, the pot of gold at rainbow’s end increasingly becomes an attainable reality, and therefore a goal. Babluani’s smart and swift little thriller could invite Kafka comparisons, but the reference is slightly off; though the thrust into a familiar yet unrecognizable world brings all the attendant fears of alienation, Kafka’s psychological dimension is missing. As far as the game’s other “players” go, we don’t know where they came from, or what drove them to such extreme ends; we only get glimpses of wizened faces, intimations of tragic pasts. Likewise, never once do we get inside Sebastien’s head — he’s only identified through action, not thought. And just as the world seems to be tightening the noose around his neck, he manages a grace note of redemption.

Georges Babluani in a scene from Gela Babluani’s “13 (Tzameti).” Image courtesy of Palm Pictures.

Rumor has it that “13 (Tzameti)” has been optioned for remake rights in the U.S.; yet one can’t help but doubt that without Babluani’s assured, modest approach, the narrative could easily devolve into gimmick, contrivance, and hyperbole. His technique is streamlined, delicately European, with none of the current suspense tactics that pass as “sophisticated,” as those on Fox‘s “24” or in Paul Greengrass‘s “United 93” (the only moments of zooms and focus-shifts are motivated within the narrative). It’s a masterful film debut, the kind of “big idea” movie that will undoubtedly grab the attention of the filmgoing community, but Babluani directs it with enough caution and craft to ensure that he has much more up his sleeve than one neat trick.

[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot, as well the editorial manager at the Criterion Collection and a contributor to Interview and Film Comment.]

Take 2
By Justin Stewart

Shock value, it seems, remains the swiftest route to moviemaking success. Accruing buzz since taking home the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, this first feature by Georgian/French director Gela Babluani is already slated for a Babluani-helmed English-language remake. Its promise of seedy underworld violence and “extreme” brutality, garnished with pretensions of sociopolitical allegory, are its chief selling points. Its trailer, a barely edited chunk from the movie’s most bracing scene, is mostly responsible for setting many Ain’t It Cool-like sausage fingers keyboard-smooshing over this “sick new pic” that, despite being in black-and-white, simply “rocks.” What separates “13 (Tzameti)” from quality current shock cinema like that of Takashi Miike is an indecent absence of humor and the drab, unearned weight of self-ascribed “importance”–precisely why a “Fight Club” comparison is far more apt than the M(elville) and B(resson) bombs dropped in promotions, based presumably on the most superficial of stylistic similiarites to the latter.

Here’d be a tricky challenge: make a movie revolving around a Russian roulette session that wasn’t tense. Babluani’s film cannot be denied its flinchy energy, but one has to ask how much of that comes bundled with the subject matter? Sebastien’s train ride to an unknown location to do unknown things (he just knows that the ticket he filched from the freshly dead man’s house he was working on might win money for his hungry family) make up the film’s most riveting moments, as they promise a mysterious payoff for the baroque portent positively poured on from the beginning. But once the nasty game is made clear to us, “13 (Tzameti)” forfeits its only ace, as the answer to the only remaining question (Will Sebastien win?) seems certain. So we’re stuck in a grimy basement full of sweaty participants and gambling onlookers (no doubt cast by Babluani for their wizened “art film” visages) waiting for the end of a game, and a series of John Woo gun-to-gun climaxes, that grew boring by the third round.

[Justin Stewart is a Reverse Shot staff writer.]

Aurelien Recoing in a scene from Gela Babluani’s “13 (Tzameti).” Image courtesy of Palm Pictures.

Take 3
By James Crawford

Though Gela Babluani’s debut is lean, hard, and savage as a starved Doberman Pinscher, it’s a film I might never have seen of my own accord, because Palm Pictures has been hawking “13 (Tzameti)” for months with an abysmal campaign. The trailer shows a circle of sweaty, fidgeting men loading revolvers with a single bullet, spinning the chamber, putting it up to the “game” participant in front of them, and pulling the trigger. It gives away the film’s central premise without a mote of titillation, priming for an experience that is cold, unforgiving, and saturated with the oppressive nihilism found in “Requiem for a Dream.” That is to say the trailer perfectly conveys the essence of Babluani’s bleak vision; it’s just not a particularly pleasant place to be.

After stumbling through the fog of its own knotty exposition, “13 (Tzameti)” settles into its stride in the abandoned manor–an airtight chamber of death where aging men prey upon the game’s participants. As they bet on successive rounds, placing massive wagers on men who themselves have nothing to lose, the Russian roulette becomes a bottomed-out metaphor for sports, an indictment of the futility and folly of putting too much metaphysical stock (belief in fate and destiny) in what is a fundamentally meaningless pursuit. Though it boasts a tidy little conclusion, “13 (Tzameti)” would work better if the opening and conclusion were excised, and the lengthy middle sequence allowed to exist on its own as a hermetic metaphysical thriller. Babluani is an absolutely ferocious director with a superlative ability–let’s call it an innate knack, in deference to his filmmaker-father, the redoubtable Temur Babluani–to stage unbearably taut spectacles of human suffering, creating the ultimate paradox: I couldn’t watch, but I couldn’t tear my eyes away.

[James Crawford is a staff writer at Reverse Shot and has also written for the Village Voice.]

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