13 TZAMETI written and directed by Géla Babluani, with George Babluani, Aurélien Recoing, Philippe Passon and Pascal Bongard. 93 minutes. Subtitled. Opens Friday (January 19) at the Royal. See Indie & Rep listings, page 74. Rating: NNNNN Rating: NNNNN
Some of us won't watch movies like the Saw series, Hostel or Turistas, because we can't stomach the gore.
But torturetainment surely serves a purpose in an Abu Ghraib era. If a movie's shock violence makes you avert your eyes, at least you're still capable of being shocked.
Géla Babluani's 13 Tzameti is shockingly good, but its brutal images serve higher gods than the grindhouse gore fed to teenagers each Halloween.
It's not too much of a stretch to call this French-Georgian drama a philosophical thriller. Shot in gorgeous black-and-white and rigorously free of splatter, this is an elegant lesson in cranking up tension.
Relying on the old-school crafts of writing, performance, camera work, cutting and music, Babluani can still send your hands flying up to cover your eyes. But it's not what you see that makes this movie work, it's how and where it directs your attention.
In his feature debut, Babluani casts his younger brother George in the lead role of Sébastien, a desperately poor immigrant to France. (Both are sons of director Temur Babluani, a star of Soviet Georgian cinema.) While working construction in the home of a ruined old Frenchman, he spies a letter promising fortunes. When the old man dies, Sébastien follows the letter's instructions and enters a world of terror.
13 Tzameti ("tzameti" means 13 in Georgian) works best if you don't know what's coming, so for those who want to take this movie in one cold, clean shot, just know that it's the first must-see film of the year and stop reading here.
What Sébastien finds at a secluded house in the French countryside is a gentleman's club placing bets on Russian roulette. He has unwittingly signed up to play, so he's forced to join the other wretches standing in a circle, each one pointing a gun at the next man's head. In the first round, each has one bullet in his revolver. Bang. In the second round, two bullets. And so on, until there's just one quivering winner left standing.
13 Tzameti could easily have gone the exploitation route of those notorious "bumfight" videos, but instead Babluani's combination of technical precision, nods to film history and remorseless macho gives the film a philosophical or even spiritual dimension.
Nothing clarifies your notions of fate like a half-loaded gun cocked at your skull. Each sequence has stark consequences, and the film builds from pastoral realism to nightmarish intensity with bracing, intelligent rigour. By the end, it's practically Zen in its variety of open-ended meanings.
Babluani's second film, The Legacy, premieres later this month at the Sundance festival. If it's anywhere near as good as 13 Tzameti, it'll confirm the arrival of a major new talent.