Géla Babluani’s thriller 13 Tzameti, winner of the World Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, offers a relentlessly bleak – and downright exploitive – look at the French Dream. In the film, an impoverished Georgian immigrant takes the place of a dead drug-addicted criminal after accidentally learning that there’s a con job in the works. The job in question, however, is hardly what the young antihero could have anticipated.
Containing sparse dialogue, and shot in drab black and white reminiscent of the French New Wave, 13 Tzameti presents a world filled with menace, greed, horror, and lots of ugly faces. The one handsome exception is the Georgian immigrant (played by the director’s younger brother, George Babluani), whose beauty and innocence - actually, “stupid” might be a more accurate character description - is supposed to make him more simpatico to film audiences. Yet, in spite of director Babluani’s sure directorial hand and actor Babluani’s diffident but ingratiating performance, I found it impossible to sympathize with someone that stupid. Whatever was to befall that young man would be well deserved.
During the film’s second half, Babluani, who also wrote the screenplay, focuses solely on the “job.” The story and the characters become irrelevant; all that matters is the cheap voyeuristic thrill of watching the action while expectantly waiting for the Big Bloody Bang. While apparently condemning life’s senseless violence, Babluani clearly relishes it on-screen - and he wants to impart that feeling to his audience. (This is a problem I also had with Pulp Fiction, with which 13 Tzameti has several elements in common.) The oft-repeated, excruciating, and unnecessarily lengthy suspense preceding each inevitable explosion - I actually averted my eyes several times - made me feel like a Roman arena spectator, waiting for the cage doors to open so hungry lions could have their human lunch.
The moralistic - some might call it merely ironic - finale, reminiscent of a famous sequence in Midnight Cowboy, rings as false as everything else in the film’s plot.
“Tzameti,” by the way, means “thirteen” in Georgian. That’s the antihero’s lucky - or, depending on your take, unlucky - number while playing his part in the con job.
Screened at the Los Angeles Film Festival.