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Thursday, 22 May 2008

13 Tzameti (2005)

As if to prove that not all Hollywood films nowadays are based on films from Japan and Korea, the 2008 film 13 will be based on this one from Georgia. Not the US state of Georgia, the former Soviet republic of Georgia, though it's partly shot in French and German as well as Georgian. It's also shot in black and white and manages to feel timeless. Like a select few of the Japanese horror remakes, 13 is being made by its original director, Géla Babluani, so it has potential.

It has an intriguing plot. Jean-François Godon is a man of mystery. He's in really bad shape, collapsing a few times in the opening sequences, and he has secrets. He's pretty broke, to the degree that he only has an advance for the workman on his roof and no actual wages, but he tells a friend that he has a way to make a lot of money. It'll only take a day and he may not live through it. It's not drugs but it's something dubious. Even his wife doesn't know, though she's intrigued and finds a letter to him that has just been delivered containing a train ticket and a prepaid hotel reservation. Someone else is watching from the street and taking pictures. But before we find out anything of substance, Jean-François Godon dies.

The house goes to his sister, so Sébastien, the workman, won't get paid, but Sébastien has the letter and he decides to use it. He catches the train, he stays at the hotel and, pretending to be M Godon, he follows the cryptic instructions phoned to the room, leading him on a wild adventure, all the more wild for the fact that he doesn't have the faintest clue what he's getting himself into. Sébastien knows as much as we do, which is to say precisely nothing, and finds himself moving from hotel to train to taxi to dilapidated farm in the middle of nowhere where strange men half strip him and break the heels off his shoes.

This story is magnetic. Usually when we don't know what's happening in the slightest, there are two ways the film can go: either we get quickly confused, bored and then switch off, or we get quickly hooked and stay there. 13 Tzameti is a perfect example of the latter. We can't stop watching, because we just have to see what's going to come next. When we find out, we are seriously shocked, but like a train wreck we can't ignore it. We have to keep watching and can't stop even as writer/director Géla Babluani increases the level of the shock again and again until it's almost unbearable.

13 Tzameti is a work of twisted genius. It's obviously low budget but it's high enough to matter. It doesn't look shoddy and it has more tension than anything else I've seen in years. Babluani constructs his film masterfully. There are many, many people and the screen is often full of them, but they're always framed exactly as they should be. The faces are memorable, and the black and white stock makes me remember old silent or early sound films that found joy in memorable faces: Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc and Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible spring quickly to mind. The pressure the characters are under is blistering and it only adds to how memorable those faces are.

Sébastien is presumably played by a relation of the director: he's Giorgi Babluani. The Babluanis are obviously a cinematic bunch as Géla's next film, L'Héritage was cowritten and codirected by Temur Babluani and Giorgi is in that one too. And after this film, I'll be looking out for it hard. What young Sébastien finds at the end of his blind journey is a real slap in the face. What Babluani gives us with his film is no different. What an amazing piece of cinema. The human dynamic side of the story is reasonably predictable but the shocks aren't. Wow.

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