Thursday, April 12, 2007

Film Review #95: 13 Tzameti
Director: Géla Babluani
Cast: Georges Babluani, Aurélien Recoing, Philippe Passon

Somewhere outside Paris, thirteen contestants gather in a circle, load their pistols, spin the chambers, and set the muzzles point-blank against the skull of the man in front. Against a frenzy of betting onlookers and a handler’s sharp orders, they wait for a hanging bulb to switch on, then fire. This repeats through three rounds. Then two finalists face each other for a point blank duel – the sarcastic, taunting Jacky (durable French character actor Aurélien Recoing) has survived three previous duels, managed by his own brother, and the shy young handyman Sébastien (Georges Babluani, the director’s younger brother, in his first film role) has walked into more than he bargained for.

On the wall, a poster of 1960s rock star Jim Morrison evokes an era of glamorized self-destruction. Shot in somber, finely detailed black and white – director Géla Babluani says color would be distracting – with almost no blood on-screen, 13 Tzameti meditates on chance, choice and human nature, sorrowing at all three.

Despite inevitable comparisons with director Michael Cimino’s classic 1978 film The Deer Hunter, Babluani insists he had not yet seen Cimino’s film when he made 13 Tzameti. The earlier Robert DeNiro-Christopher Walken vehicle follows a Russian-American enclave in a small town near Pittsburgh’s steel mills through the Vietnam War era. The Deer Hunter famously includes games of Russian roulette, first those the Vietcong imposed upon young US soldiers whom they held prisoner. Then Walken’s character remains in Saigon after the US pull-out. He has a heroin habit that he supports night after night via secret, high-stakes Russian roulette matches played very far off any beaten tourist track.

For those only just beginning to dig their way out of the Vietnam era’s quandaries by the late 70s, The Deer Hunter showed how far afield that war had taken an entire generation. Even more pointedly, that film commented on how the American dream held up for one community of immigrants, still not fully assimilated a generation after their parents fled Soviet repression.

13 Tzameti is the first feature film by writer-director Géla Babluani, in his late 20s and from Georgia, the former Soviet republic. “Tzameti” is Georgian for the number thirteen, universal sign of bad luck. Babluani’s close-knit working-class immigrants are transplanted to France, where any film depicting foreign workers assumes a tension these days. Babluani’s father, a prominent Georgian filmmaker himself, sent his children in France in the early 90s – to the “so-called civilized world,” Babluani says in the DVD interview. He says his generation fell into chaos after the violence of three domino-like civil wars in Georgia and the sudden free-fall into freedom they encountered in a post-Soviet world. Unlike the revolutionary but provincial thugs in The Deer Hunter, those organizing Russian roulette matches outside Paris are worldly men in shiny black cars, habituated to power and complaining that their sport’s golden era is past. Once a night’s match started with 42 contestants, laments one, and the opening bets in Istanbul were much larger.

Around the cramped table in their slope-ceilinged kitchen, Sébastien’s family has a bit of bread and soup to go around. They still speak Georgian at home. Sébastien loses his roofing job at a crumbing, walled villa on the beach when the owner overdoses on morphine and the sudden widow dismisses Sébastien without paying him. The wind fortuitously blows a letter into his hands, containing a train ticket, paid hotel reservation and mysterious instructions. Feeling cheated, Sébastien feels entitled to take his former employer’s place in what he discovers, too late to back out, is the heavily guarded Russian roulette match in the dark woods. His conviction that he’s entitled to overturn his luck of course also generates Sébastien’s later encounter with Jacky’s manager-brother, who feels similarly entitled.

13 Tzameti is meticulous filmmaking, with clean, understated performances. The tensest scenes are not necessarily those during the shooting matches. When detectives arrest Sébastien for questioning on his way home, he evades their confrontations, insists on his story, holds his gaze steady. Gradually it’s clear that mastering his own surging panic during the matches has inoculated this rather shy innocent against garden-variety threats and automatic obedience. To what end, at what cost is less clear.

13 Tzameti opened in the US in July 2006 and released on DVD last month. This review appeared in the 4/12/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a weekly column reviewing films that have not had regular theatrical runs in Syracuse & older films of enduring worth.