Aug 26 2009

13 Tzameti

Film Duel is our written review format in which Benn and James each review a film, and then comment on each others’ reviews to give a proper balance and really fill out the commentary as well as possible. This week Benn and James tackle the french thriller, 13 Tzameti. You can’t blame them for having to get a little cryptic with this one, they’re only trying not to spoil the movie for you.

13 Tzameti
Year: 2005
Directed by: Géla Babluani
Written by: Géla Babluani
Starring: George Babluani
Genre: Thriller

Benn and James’ reviews and rebuttals follow after the jump.

James says:

Before I get into reviewing 13 Tzameti, let me just explain that this is one of those films that to give even the simplest of synopsis would be to spoil the tension of the first act, if not more. So all I’m going to tell you is this. It’s French, it’s black and white (though it is recent, 2005), and it’s about a working class man who sees a mysterious opportunity for money in the home he is working, and takes it. The film, written and directed by Géla Babluani, has a very unique premise, and a lot of film noir style, though I would not really classify it as a noir film, for it lacks too many of the standard tropes to really fit in with the long tradition.

Since I’m intentionally leaving you in the dark on plot, the story and structure become the most difficult thing to review discretely. Suffice it to say the film does have a slow pace, one that serves it well in the long run. Its slow build serves to gradually build the tension that will later be required for the film’s final acts. This does however, make the film a bit hard to get into. While the early mystery is intriguing, it struggles to pull the viewer along for as long as it does. But those who get through it will find themselves rewarded by this buildup, for once all is revealed you have gained the proper amount of attachment to the protagonist, Sébastien, (played by George Babluani) as is required by the latter events in order for the audience to care about what is going on enough to invest in the tension. And once the shit hits the fan, it hits it in a big way.

What this movie does best is suspense. The stakes are set extremely high, and the world is a very dark one. While there are no fantastical elements involved, one gets the feeling that Sébastien enters an entirely different world from that of our own, one with its own rules. While we sit through the early portions of the film not knowing what to expect, we find in the latter that even though we know everything, we still are horribly unaware of what is going to happen. The pacing of the individual scenes is equally leisurely, really clawing at your nerves as much as it can before allowing you some room to breath.

The acting here is similar to what you would find in many noir films, sans the melodrama. Minus that you are left with only the subtlety. It relies primarily on Babluani’s facial expressions and physical mannerisms, and he pulls it off extremely well. The other actors all do their jobs excellently too. The main villainous character is well humanized by the end of the film and even with the little screen time he has, the policeman character manages to give the levity this film so badly craves.

This film feels like it could only have been shot in black and white. Its moodiness and shadowy world require it. The cinematography itself is often well framed and lighted, though the high grain look does give it a sort of budget feel that it might have benefited from losing. Nevertheless, the high contrast achieves the tone that the filmmaker no doubt was looking for, and in a film with the audience that this one has, you have to expect that it’s not going to have a metaphorical glossy finish. The music here is sparse, as it should be. It doesn’t allow you the relief of having something to listen to, instead it forces you to focus entirely on the drama at hand, at by the end, there’s plenty to focus on.

This isn’t a movie for the ADD generation, even I had some trouble getting into it at first. Nor is it a film for the weak of heart. But anyone who enjoys watching a movie on the edge of their seat, gripping the armrests will find plenty to like here. And if you’re a noir-lover like we are, you’ll feel right at home in the moody atmosphere of this film.

Benn says:

Most thrillers, particularly those nowadays, have a tendency to rush prematurely to the climax of the story, thus forgetting the fundamental rule of suspense: it’s all about the lead up to the climax, and never about the climax itself.  Gela Babluani’s film 13 Tzameti (tzameti being the Georgian word for “thirteen”) is a film that is virtually all build, which keeps the audience on the edge of their seats until the very end.

13 Tzameti begins with Sebastian, a young roofer who lives in a tiny apartment with his poor family.  While working on a wealthy couple’s seaside home, he unintentionally gathers bits of information concerning his employers that hints at criminal history, drugs, bankruptcy, and a mysterious letter which holds the key to a large sum of money.  When his employer suddenly dies, Sebastian takes hold of the envelope and follows the mysterious set of directions, which leads him to a high stakes game that may not be worth its winnings.

This only takes up about a third of the films plot, but I will not give away the details or the nature of this game, as the rest of the film lies at the center of this game.  All I will say is this; the game is as intense as it is short and simple.  In fact, the aforementioned statement also describes the film quite well, as the plot, dialogue, characters are simple and waste no time with embellishments of any kind.  With a running time of barely 90 minutes, Babluani’s film is the epitome of minimalism, as the film sets out for one thing and one thing only: suspense.

With so much silence and no hints whatsoever, the audience becomes entranced by this game.  What is it?  A high stakes card game?  A scavenger hunt?  A battle royale of some kind?  The only thing we do know is Sebastian is way over his head, and watching him quickly realize this, yet press onward is part of the fun in the mystery.

The game turns out to be almost inconceivably simple, yet don’t think that means the audience is off the hook, for the game itself is disturbing in spite of it’s simplicity.  The last two acts of the film take place on the premises of the game, and though the rules are known, the sense of danger and subsequent thrills only rise from there.  Unlike Christopher Nolan (director of Memento, Insomnia and The Prestige), whose films are more elaborate and complicated for the sake of mystery, Babluani gets rid of the smoke and mirrors, letting the audience know upfront what they are dealing with.  While most suspense stories often rely on the mystery leading to a climax, 13 Tzameti presents a kind of anti-climax, as the film’s big reveal is far more unsettling and unnerving that any kind of developing mystery.  Furthermore, the film’s answer to “what is this game?” is not particularly satisfying in the traditional sense because it offers no relief or closure, just more reasons to remain shocked and alert until the films end.

Due to its minimalist approach to film, some may not appreciate the sparse dialogue or lack of character development, which are both acceptable reasons to not enjoy the film.  Throughout the film, we don’t really get to know Sebastian or the criminals he is surrounded by, so why should we care what happens to them.  Granted, we still do for soon-to-be-obvious reasons (if you rent the film), but it’s hard to empathize with Sebastian since he remains, in essence, a stranger from start to finish.  On the other hand, by keeping us at a distance from the character’s lives forces us to be bystanders to the game, making sure that thrills are genuine and unbiased; if we are meant to root for Sebastian, we lose interest in the other twelve players of the game, or, going along with the idea behind the game, start to differentiate between the number clad players.  Also, a story like 13 Tzameti is better off remaining indifferent to the lives of it players because, once the game is afoot, their well-being is irrelevant compared to the thrills they can give us.

Benn’s rebuttal:

For one, lead actor Babluani’s facial expressions are incredible, since he’s able to reveal so much panic and emotion without much dialogue.  Plus, I wouldn’t begin to know how to react to these situations, so it was quite a feat for Babluani to react realistically.

The modern day ADD/MTV generation probably won’t like this film, but once the game is revealed, I found myself at the edge of my seat, and my guess is that anyone with a brain cell left in their head would react the same way.

James’ rebuttal:

It is indeed quite an accomplishment to create such suspense even once all of the mystery of the film is resolved.  I think this is probably a result of the high stakes and the build up which really lets you know the importance of the game.

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