Sébastian (George Babluani), the main character in the film 13 Tzameti, spends his days repairing roofs in rural France to provide for his family. He seems like a nice guy, but we can understand why he would want to escape such a dull life. While repairing the roof of a somewhat elderly, morphine-addicted employer (Philippe Passon), Sébastian overhears him discuss a job opportunity that seems to be as lucrative as it is shrouded in secrecy. When his employer dies from an overdose and Sébastian discovers that he will receive no payment for the work he has already done, we really can’t blame him for seizing the opportunity and grabbing an envelope that contains a hotel reservation, train ticket, and limited instructions on where to go to receive more information about “the job.”
Of course, we all sense that Sébastian has chosen a somewhat foreboding-at-best choice (the fact he is being followed by a police investigator doesn’t mitigate our fears either). After a few more train tickets and instructions hidden in storage lockers, Sébastian arrives at an austere house in the forest. He still doesn’t know what is going on, but by now he realizes that it can’t be good. Unfortunately for Sébastian, the only response he receives when he hints that he wants to leave is, “You gotta play now.”
At this point I would like to insert the following disclaimer: If what has been written so far sounds interesting, go to Cornell Cinema and watch this movie. Trust me, it’s good. To know any more of the plot would spoil the Kafkaesque tone of the film, and if you don’t want to know, stop reading now (don’t watch the trailer either, since it reveals parts of the plot).
For the rest of you who don’t care that curiosity kills cats, we all find out what exactly a bunch of rich honchos and an assortment of desperate-looking men have come out to the woods to do (I’ll give you a hint: it’s not an Edith Piaf fan club meeting). Sébastian has somewhat unwittingly thrown himself into a gambling venue that has people play for the highest cost — human life. A group of thirteen men are forced to stand in a circle, each pointing a gun with one bullet in the chamber at the head of the person in front of him. This formalized version of Russian roulette continues as more rounds are added and the ante is upped — literally and metaphorically.
13 Tzameti can be connected to the increase in “torture” movies like Saw, Hostel and the like. However, while other films of this genre tend to scare their audiences through rapid and often jerky camera movements, director Géla Babluani (brother of the lead) presents his film in a decidedly calm and methodic manner. Filmed in black and white, 13 Tzameti takes on a noir character that reflects the nonchalance of the rich men who calmly place bets on men’s lives. Of course, all of this is in stark, terrifying contrast to the incredible tension written across the faces of the men.
Despite the macabre premise, there isn’t much blood and guts in 13 Tzameti. In fact, the violence appears deliberately limited. However, 13 Tzameti isn’t concerned with grossing people out like its counterparts; the goal of this film is to create tension. Analysis has been made interpreting the plot of 13 Tzameti as a metaphor for the corporate world or as a reference to the director’s eastern-European background. I like to look at this film simply as a wonderful exercise in great, tense storytelling not seen since the days of Hitchcock and some of the works of Roman Polanski and David Lynch.
Everything in the film, from the Kafkaesque presentation of the narrative to the skillful manipulation of light and dark, augment the anxiety forced upon the viewer. Even I found myself holding my breath during the seemingly infinite amount of time achingly waiting for the contestants to actually pull the triggers of their guns.
By the end of the film, Sébastian is trying to escape not only the contest itself, but the police that are on his tail, as well as other contestants and their relatives who are out seeking revenge. 13 Tzameti is one of those films that are so highly ratcheted with cinematic anxiety, we are both happy and sad when we finally reach the end. Sure, you never want a great movie to end, but at least you finally will be able to start working on dislodging your fingernails from your armrest.