Saturday, September 29, 2007

Géla Babluani, "13 Tzameti " (2005).

Sometimes I am shocked by how little American audiences expect from their entertainment. I take comfort in knowing that there are alternative venues to which the discriminating can go for quality product. Independently run theaters that show foreign films are often available in towns of any significant size. Such amusements may turn off the average film goer with subtitles and deep characterization, but I find a consistency of value in them that keeps me going back. (Actually, to be honest- I rent these films... I can't stand going to theaters. I particularly resent the distractions of people who are oblivious to your experience and the space that you occupy together). So if I read compelling reviews of a lesser known film, I will often give it a try.

Not only had I seen positive notices of 13 Tzameti, but I had been told firsthand that I would most likely enjoy the film. And then I saw a trailer for it on a DVD containing another title I liked. The scenes depicted looked tense and well-shot, and I thought they promised much more artful anxiety. So when I noticed a pre-viewed copy of it at the local rental outlet, I bundled it with a few others and took it home with me. I waited until a night when I could watch it alone (I expected it to be intense and rather violent), and settled in for what I thought would be a memorable experience.

13 Tzameti is the debut film from Gela Babluani, a French director of Georgian birth. The word "Tzameti" in the title means "thirteen" in the director's native tongue. Given the theme and tone of the movie, I'd have to assume that this number carries negative associations in cultures other than my own. It's the story of a poor immigrant (named Sebastien) trying to scrape up some extra cash for his family. He's working on a neighbor's roof when he intercepts a strange envelope with a train ticket and a receipt for a pre-paid hotel room. He's overheard a conversation which suggests that the contents of his discovery lead to a serious sum of money. When his neighbor becomes otherwise indisposed, Sebastien decides to take his place... and follows a set of instructions that bring him to a seedy location in the middle of the woods. What he'll find there will change his life forever. What he'll be asked to do is something far beyond his conception of himself.

If a viewer were to watch this movie with no prior knowledge of the events that transpire, then the first half of the movie could possibly elicit paranoia and a heightened sense of mystery. We might relate to the desperation evident in the actions of a man that plummets into unknown circumstances for possible gain. The characters that flit about on the periphery might add additional intrigue to the story. Instead the trailer for 13 Tzameti gives us the "money shot" up front and directly. If you've seen the preview, then you know what awaits our hero. And to tell you the truth, it's really not that compelling or original. I don't want to give away the plot of this movie (in case you ever want to watch it and decide for yourself). However, I will say that you've seen this scenario already- it's a straightforward (if remarkably stylish) depiction of the greed and cruelty in which men involve each other. It speaks to the basest instincts imaginable. If you've watched ultimate fighting, a cockfight, or any production coordinated by Michael Vick- then you have already engaged the themes of this film.

Yet from the reviews of the movie on IMDB and Amazon, you'd never know just how pedestrian and cliche 13 Tzameti is. You might think it is deeply nuanced in its philosophy and depiction of a man confronting a desperate situation. Furthermore you might be led to believe that it's a trenchant commentary on the brutal condition of humanity. But if you haven't experienced (either personally or vicariously) the obsessions and compulsions portrayed by these characters, then you've led a fairly narrow life. Certainly it's an extreme version of human drives, even if it is eminently predictable. The performances are admirably convincing. And I have to credit the filmmaking techniques demonstrated in the gritty black-and-white world of neo-noir in which the tale takes place... Still, I think it's a mistake to build up the reputation of this rookie director until we see how he does with the American remake. Typically and perhaps unfortunately, the rights were recently purchased by Brad Pitt. Reports are that Babluani has already signed on to the project.

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