3 stars (out of four)
Anyone with a real taste for film noir, especially the French variety, should enjoy "13 Tzameti," a hypnotic new thriller by 26-year-old writer-director Gela Babluani, who lives in France but hails from ex-Soviet Georgia.
Creating a mood that suggests an unholy mix of Czech novelist Franz Kafka, American pulp fictionist Jim Thompson and French heist moviemaker Jean-Pierre Melville, Babluani's story is about the perils of get-rich-quick schemes. It's also a movie about crime, fate, death, revolvers, train rides and luck. The central character, Sebastien (played by Georges Babluani, the director's brother) is a poor Georgian immigrant, who, while working as a roof repairer on the house of a drug addict/crook neighbor named Godon (Philippe Passon), overhears talk of a huge score the crook may be making soon.
When Godon overdoses on morphine, Sebastien impulsively decides to move in, stealing Godon's train tickets and instructions and intending to show up at the job--whatever it is--in the dead man's place. From then on, "13" (which translates in Georgian as "Tzameti") keeps turning the screws relentlessly, sending Sebastien on a nail-biting train ride, surrounding him with crooks and cops and putting him smack into the deadly, terrible contest that Godon had entered.
It's not what he expected. Once entered, he's trapped in an elaborate, modified Russian roulette tournament, ringed by sponsors and gamblers, with a husky-voiced announcer (Pascal Bongard) rasping out the play-by-play, or shot-by-shot, commentary. And once Babluani has you in that game room, and the "sport" begins, the movie uses horrific metaphor, narrative intensity and grim pseudo-realism to get you in an absolutely relentless grip.
Tinged with Russian fatalism and French existentialist irony, "13" is shot in black and white, as a classic noir should be, in huge moody wide-screen images that recall some of the great noirs of the late `50s and `60s: Melville's "Second Breath," Robert Wise's "Odds Against Tomorrow" and Budd Boetticher's "The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond." Director Babluani seems to be a natural. He's a member of a famous Georgian filmmaking family; his father, Temur Babluani, is a prize-winning director. Gela, with "13," has already taken major awards at the Sundance and Venice festivals.
His cast is first-rate. Brother Georges has the right fresh, innocent face for the star part, and he's surrounded by a rogue's gallery who look and sound like modern versions of the world-weary or psychopathic French crooks, cops and killers of "Rififi." One face is familiar: Aurelien Recoing, who played Vincent, the phony businessman of Laurent Cantet's "Time Out," who makes your hair stand on end as belligerent Jacky, Player No. 6.
The whole goal of classic film noir is to create a stylized nightmare vision of the real world, to play artistically with the ruthless traps of destiny and bad character. That's what Babluani does here. He creates a fear so bottomless, a bad dream so plausible that its hooks tear into your consciousness. You may think you can guess where he's heading, but you probably won't.
Directed and written by Gela Babluani; photographed by Tariel Meliava; video editing by Noemie Moreau; sound editing by Didier Lozahic; executive producer Fanny Saadi. In French, with English subtitles. A Palm Pictures release; opens Friday at Landmark's Century Centre Cinema. Running time: 1:30. No MPAA rating (parents cautioned for violence, drug use and language).
Sebastien - Georges Babluani
Jacky - Aurelien Recoing
Master of Ceremonies - Pascal Bongard
Alain - Fred Ulysse
Mr. Schloendorf - Vania Viliers
Christine Godon - Olga Legrand
Movie review: '13 Tzameti'
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