13 Tzameti Review

13 Tzameti is a cool, cruel thriller which can make you sick with excitement. It's vaguely reminiscent of a more intellectual version of Eli Roth's Hostel but the style is completely different. Where Roth gave us sex and gore, Gela Babluani offers chilly monochrome Scope photography and a disturbing reluctance to allow us easy sympathy with his characters.

This really is one film where it’s important to go into it knowing as little as possible, so I will attempt to include as few spoilers as I can.

Sebastien (Babulani) is a 20 year old immigrant who is hired to repair the roof of a neighbour. One morning, he overhears his neighbour having a conversation about a quick way to earn a large amount of money. Shortly afterwards, the neighbour dies in mysterious circumstances and Sebastien decides to assume his neighbour’s identity and follow the get-rich-quick instructions which he finds in the house. These directions take him into the French countryside and a meeting with a group of jaded middle-class men who have devised a very unusual way of passing their time. Once he is involved with them, Sebastien finds that he has no option but to keep going, regardless of the risk to himself.

The film has been covered in praise since its first showing. At the 2005 Venice Film Festival, it won the award for the best first feature and it gained the World Cinema Jury Prize at Sundance. It’s not hard to see why it’s been so admired since, on its own terms, it’s a quite beautiful piece of work. Gela Babluani is capable of wonderfully fluid direction, maintaining a carefully paced narrative and putting the screws on the viewer without pounding them over the head. He is particularly good at a kind of trancelike, abstract quality where reality is slightly distanced and events seem to be unfolding at a remove. Our inability to intervene in Sebastien’s fate is pointed up to us through this distancing and this also makes this rather opportunistic and not entirely sympathetic character hard to empathise with. The tension comes from a basic primal fear more than from a fully sympathetic engagement with the protagonist.

Babluani has compared the film to a child’s dream – an entry into a closed world where innocence slips into the past – but the result is more nightmare than dream, one where the trap of fear is constantly about to snap shut. The use of black and white Cinemascope by Babluani and cinematographer Tariel Meliava may be key here. These images always have a weird, icy estrangement, one which many great directors and their DPs have exploited – notably Jack Clayton and Freddie Francis in The Innocents - and they seem to make strange the familiar world. But the images also emphasise the coldness of the film, one which is reminiscent of the writing of Patricia Highsmith with her convoluted moral compasses. The work of Borges comes to mind as well.

The pacing is very cunning indeed. The first half hour of the film is almost painfully slow, painting the life of an immigrant family for whom a few Euros are the difference between life and death. George Babluani’s exceptional performance as Sebastien is key here. The brother of the director, George is an inexperienced actor but has an electrifying quality which makes him fascinating to watch even while his actions seem hard to comprehend. During the second half of the film, he manages to evoke a mixture of fear, vengeance and arrogance in a way which is guaranteed to create mixed emotions in the viewer. Every single bit of association we make with this character is earned by the actor and he never asks for us to weep for him. He seems to be saying that it’s all right if we don’t like him, he doesn’t care. As such, this is one of the most impressive acting debuts I’ve seen in a long time.

The film has a lot to say about gambling, the ways in which the bourgeoisie still feed on the proletariat and the futility of trying to escape one life by manufacturing another. It could even be a metaphor about the problem of existence; if that’s the bag you’re into. But it’s also a damn good straightforward thriller with some scenes that are so tense they are guaranteed to get your heart racing. It may, perhaps, be a little finger-wagging at times and the final twist, apposite though it is, might be both a touch too predictable and not entirely satisfying. But it’s a superbly crafted film which looks superb and is well acted by a large cast, many of whom look like they have stepped straight out of a Melville movie. It also isn’t a moment too long, coming in at a brisk ninety minutes. At a time when most of its films are at least half an hour over their natural length and thrillers lose their bite somewhere in the middle, Hollywood could learn a lot from Gela Babluani.

The Disc

The edition of 13 Tzameti under review is a Canadian release from Seville Pictures with a dual-language sleeve. It contains the same extra features as the US release from Palm Pictures.

The anamorphic transfer replicates the original Scope ratio of 2.35:1. As black and white transfers go, it’s pretty good but the mistake has been made of going for too high a contrast and the result is a lot of unsightly edge enhancement. Still, the image is very crisp indeed and the moody, somewhat noiresque shadow detail is a delight. The French 5.1 soundtrack is equally good with plenty of tension through the use of startling sound effects and ambient noises.

There are a number of interesting extras. The most intriguing is “Interview with a Survivor” which purports to be a conversation with a survivor of the game with which Sebastien finds himself involved. This may or may not be genuine but it’s a wonderful extra all the same, offering us the kind of human context which the film rigorously omits. We also get interviews with the director and cast, the best of which are with the Babluani brothers, both of whom prove to be highly eloquent and thoughtful speakers. The deleted scenes are brief and far from necessary – this is a film which benefits from being pruned to the bare essentials. More entertaining is a short film called Sunday’s Game which is a witty American take on the central image of Babluani’s film in which some elderly ladies enjoy a rather dangerous weekend get-together.

The film and the non-English extras are all clearly subtitled.

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