Judge Joel Pearce would rather play Uno.
13 players. One bullet. The ultimate game of chance.
Most accurately described as a foreign arthouse thriller, 13 Tzameti is a thought-provoking, suspenseful, disturbing film. It's the kind of film that doesn't get made often enough anymore, one that works very well on an intellectual and visceral level. That said, it's also a film that is best enjoyed with no previous knowledge of its plot, so you may want to return to my review after you've had a chance to experience it yourself. If you need more convincing, though, read on.
Facts of the Case
Sebastian (Georges Babluani, The Untouchable) is a poor young immigrant, struggling to support his family at menial roofing jobs. During work one day, he overhears his rich client discussing some sort of tournament with a large money prize. When the wealthy man dies, Sebastian sees only one thing to do: He assumes the man's identity and takes his place in the contest. He's so excited by the opportunity that he isn't worried even when the police begin asking him questions about the contest…
A few minutes into 13 Tzameti, an investigating police officer drives up in a new Volkswagen Beetles. It's a surreal moment because everything else in the film could comfortably fit in the 1940s. The movie is in stark black and white, the characters look timeless, and the cinematography is stylish and classic. It's not until the contest itself that this classic feel is broken—brilliantly and effectively.
I knew almost nothing about 13 Tzameti before seeing it the first time, and it struck me as an edgy psychological thriller. It begins slowly, giving us a chance to truly get to know Sebastian before he is thrust into a wildly improbable and dangerous situation. By this stage of the film, we are already attached to him, and we can easily shrug off some of the less plausible twists because of that attachment. I was drawn in by this experience of watching the film, and director Gela Babluani's skilled technical filmmaking. The construction of the contest itself is one of the most intense film experiences I've seen, made much better by the quiet that comes before. We are wrenched from curiosity to horror in an instant, and then not allowed to breathe for several minutes.
Many others have also explored the film as a discussion of existential philosophy. Sebastian has no idea what he's getting himself into, only to find himself and the other contestants trapped in a small room and forced to contemplate death in the most hopeless of situations. Each contestant behaves differently under these circumstances; it makes for a fascinating psychological study. So few of us are forced to contemplate an imminent death, and this film forces us to head down that road—if only theoretically and for just a few minutes. It makes for more satisfying horror than the usual fare, even if it doesn't give us the same jumpy thrills.
13 Tzameti can also be thought of as social commentary. Most of the contestants are poor immigrants or drugged up failures, while their handlers are wealthy Europeans who yearn for the thrills of mortal combat without risking their own lives in the balance. They stand to lose a lot of money, though it's the contestants who are forced to risk their lives. Whether you want to think of it as a simple metaphor for the social classes in capitalist countries, or a contemplation of global economics, the parallels are chilling. Our corporations gain and lose hundreds of millions of dollars without blinking, as the workers both here and in developing nations live or die by snap decisions.
Ultimately, 13 Tzameti works on all these levels, elevating it from "interesting-foreign-film status to must-see film. The nuances, both in the performances and the filmmaking, encourage multiple viewings, and will haunt you long after the film is over. Babluani is currently working on an American remake of this film, but I can't imagine why he'd agree to do that. He's already created a masterpiece, and it's already out. Hopefully, once he's done placating the American studios, he'll get down to business and make some more shocking and exciting films.
Palm Pictures has done excellent work with this DVD as well. It edges out my British edition of the film in every category, especially in image quality. While it's probably PAL sourced, you can only tell when there's rapid horizontal movement. Generally, the image is crisp and clear, with almost no edge enhancement and excellent contrast. The sound is also good, though generally contained to the front of the sound stage. The subtitles are well-translated and easy to read. Palm had the presence of mind to use white subtitles, which are easy to read and don't distract from the picture like yellow subtitles do on black and white films.
This edition also has much more impressive extras. There are interviews with Gela Babluani, as well as several members of the cast. The interviews explore the ideas in the film, as well as the production process. Much more fascinating, however, is the included interview with a self-proclaimed survivor of the kind of game that Sebastian plays in the film. I don't know whether it's real or not, as no context is given, but it's a chilling peek into the mindset of someone who would volunteer to risk his life for money. If this interview is fictional, it deepens the psychology and philosophy of the film. If it's real, it makes the film all the more chilling and impressive. Just for fun, Palm has also slipped in a short film called Sunday's Game, a thematically appropriate film about a group of aging women and their Sunday tradition. Some deleted scenes are included on the disc as well, and a photo gallery of the concept art for the DVD cover. Palm Pictures has done 13 Tzameti justice with this feature-rich edition.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
A few words of warning before you rush out to check 13 Tzameti out for yourself. Many people have compared it to Fight Club and other recent, violent films. Don't go in expecting thrills, chills, non-stop suspense and explosive violence. If you enter the film looking for a traditional thriller, you will probably exit the film bored and disappointed. Also, the film does falter somewhat during the end. I'm not sure how Babluani could have ended 13 Tzameti any better than he has, but it feels wrong. This will also frustrate some viewers, but shouldn't stop anyone from experiencing a film this wonderful and unique.
It's not often that a film like 13 Tzameti comes along. Make sure you don't miss it. True, a North American version will arrive next year, but I'm not confident that Babluani can successfully juggle so many diverse elements in the same story twice. That a first time filmmaker would produce this film is almost absurd to consider, and it has earned the praise it's received. Watch it!
Babluani is not guilty. The court looks forward to his future films.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Palm Pictures
• Interview with a Survivor
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