13 Tzameti is an outstanding, emotionally visceral film from first-time director Gela Babluani, a gripping, mesmerizing tour de force of cinematic expression that collars you in an ever-tightening noose of nervous tension and quickly engulfs you completely in its dark atmosphere. It's so rare for a film to come along and actually succeed at putting you on edge -- 13 Tzameti, though, truly delivers the goods. It's not hard to see why the film garnered the award for Best First Feature at the Venice Film Festival and walked away with the World Cinema Jury Prize at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival.
I'm not going to go into detail in terms of the plot, as the film is much more effective if you the viewer descend alongside the main character into the depths of civilized depravity. It starts innocently enough, with young Sebastien (George Babluani) doing some repair work on a certain gentleman's roof. While he is working, he overhears this man talking about a letter he is expecting, a letter detailing an opportunity to make a great deal of money. Fate would seemingly have it that this letter would fall into the hands of Sebastien, and he makes the decision to pursue its mysterious promise himself, despite the fact he has no clue what it relates to. (As an immigrant, struggling to take care of his family, he decides to take the risk.) All he finds in the envelope is a train ticket and a hotel ticket, but these start him on a journey filled with cryptic clues, clandestine movements, and deepening mystery. At the end of that journey, when he finally realizes just what he has gotten himself in to, he has no choice but to play everything out. Play is the operative word here because Sebastien finds himself to be a player in a high-stakes game of chance, a game in which the losers pay the ultimate price. As the number of players shrinks and the stakes rise with each round, the intensity of each succeeding moment approaches levels rarely seen -- especially recently -- in cinema.
On the most basic level, the plot isn't all that complicated, but director Gela Babluani builds his story upon a deep foundation of nuance, subtlety, and philosophical meaning -- conjuring up some poignant insight into human nature in the process. There's definitely an existential aspect to the whole story. At one point, when the climax really begins to build, one character implores his player to approach the game philosophically -- and I feel he could just as easily be speaking to the audience when he says this.
The cinematography of 13 Tzameti is well-nigh perfect. It's always a joy to see a director eschew color for black and white, and the stark medium of the latter is all but demanded by the noir-ish atmosphere and stark philosophical implications of the story. It is difficult to believe this is director Gela Babluani's first feature film because he seems to have established control over every aspect of every shot. This is the kind of movie-making that would warm the cockles of Alfred Hitchcock's heart (not that I'm comparing Babluani to Hitchcock, of course).
The DVD comes with an impressive array of special features, most of which further illuminate the powerful messages conveyed in this multi-layered film. Even the deleted scenes contribute to your understanding of the film -- but not so much as the interviews with director Gela Babluani and actors Georges Babluani and Aurelien Recoing. I was essentially blown away by Recoing's incredibly detailed observations and insights into his character and the film itself. He plays a somewhat savage character in the film, but Recoing sounds as if he could easily be teaching film criticism at some prestigious university. Even more insight into the film is provided by director Gela Babluani as he discusses the kind of oppressive life his family left in Soviet Georgia in order to enjoy the unknown freedoms offered by France. That experience, as he indicates, definitely played a part in his vision for 13 Tzameti. Additional insight into the game itself is provided by the "testimony of a survivor." I was expecting to see some broken-willed man bewailing the horror of the game, but the subject of this fascinating interview seems to live for the danger and excitement of his obsession. The DVD also comes with a short film called Sunday's Game that correlates extremely well (albeit with much more shock value) with the contents of the feature film.
Without a doubt, 13 Tzameti is one of the most gripping, intense, and memorable films I've seen in quite a long time. It's dark, cynical nature won't appeal to some individuals, but those who feel compelled to plunge the depths of man's inhumanity and like their thrillers truly intense will be amply rewarded by the power and depth of this film.