One of the ways in which a filmmaker can start a good story is to begin the film by either having the key character experience some sort of change in his life, or putting him into some real or perceived peril. Alfred Hitchcock was a master at creating tension in his films from square one, and 13 (Tzameti) writer/director Géla Babluani follows in the traditions of Hitchcock and great film noir by starting his first feature film off with a double whammy. Twenty-two year old Sébastien has been working a job making repairs to a house belonging to Jean-François, an old man with a serious morpine habit.
The man has promised Sébastien the first part of his pay in three days. Sébastien overhears a conversation Jean-François has with another man, talking about an opportunity where he can make a lot of money. He is awaiting the delivery of an envelope with instructions; he seems very nervous about the upcoming job, saying he may not return from it . Mysterious men are watching the house, also awaiting the arrival of the envelope. The envelope arrives, bearing a train ticket and a paid hotel reservation; Jean-François promptly puts it away, and takes a long, hot bath and a morphine overdose. When he later comes back to retrieve his gear, Sébastien unwisely takes the ticket and reservation and decides to go on the trip in Jean-François' place.
Even if you didn't know this is a neo-noir film, you could probably surmise this is not going to turn out to be such a good idea. When the previous owner of a mysterious envelope takes an overdose of morphine rather than going on the trip, a thinking person might infer there's a reason for that. Sébastien is young and poor, though, with a wide-eyed naivete and innocence about the world, and so he boards the train and begins his journey.
A phone call at the hotel room Sébastien checks into gives him some instructions that give him another opportunity to change his mind and run straight back to his life. When an anonymous, scary sounding guy calls your hotel room to tell you to pick up another ticket and further instructions from a locker at the train station, you might surmise that trouble is afoot. Sébastien at this point is too curious to not keep moving forward, however; he apparently hasn't seen too many films noir himself, either. It's a bit like watching a horror film where the naive heroine decides to go check what that mysterious noise is in the basement - you just want to reach through the screen, grab Sébastien, and tell him to go home before it's too late.
Sébastien quickly finds himself in way over his head, trapped in a life-or-death struggle in a twisted game from which there is no escape. For Sébastien, the only way out is through, even if it means compromising his own morals in order to survive. Even if he makes it through, though, his innocence will be forever shattered. Newcomer George Babluani does a remarkable job as Sébastien. His most powerfully intense scenes are the ones in which he never says a word, but manages to convey the character's utter terror, hopelessness, and will to survive with nothing but facial expressions and body language.
The film's black and white cinematography is both stunning and moody. The score is well-done as well, grimly marching Sébastien, and the audience, toward the film's gritty conclusion. 13 (Tzameti) is not the most cheery and uplifting of films, but it's a noir film, what do you expect? Géla Bubliani is exploring a dark, seedy and unpleasant side of human nature. One of the values of noir as a genre is the way it explores the murkier side of human nature; you may think of yourself as a good person who would never do anything to hurt anyone but, like Sébastien, if you were up against a wall with no way out, you might find that you would have to tap into that capacity in order to survive. Once you go down that path, however, there's no dialing back the clock to the person you were before. 13 (Tzameti) is neo-noir at its best - sharp and stunning filmmaking in which the mood and tone is as important, if not more so, than the minimal dialogue, and a nebulous and compelling storytelling that will leave your questioning your own capacity for darkness.
Others on 13 (Tzameti): Variety's Deborah Young calls it a "shocker of Tarantino proportions in protracted sequences of explosive violence that leave viewers quaking." Also, because the movie has been released in England, a handful of reviews are available here.