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This game is played for keeps

August 11, 2006|Kevin Thomas | Special to The Times

In a town on the Normandy coast, a young man has been hired to replace some wooden attic beams in a house not far from the small apartment in which his immigrant Georgian family lives. He inadvertently rips a hole in a ceiling of the room below, whereupon he learns of a package that promises considerable riches. When the house's drug-addict owner overdoses fatally, the young man grabs it.

In "13 Tzameti," one surprise triggers another in ever-spiraling fashion. Yet it is already clear in its deceptively low-key opening sequences why this extraordinary film, written and directed by young Georgia-born Gela Babluani, took the best first feature prize at Venice in 2005 and the grand jury world cinema award at Sundance earlier this year.

While the film's score strikes an ominous foreshadowing note, the tone of "13 Tzameti's" first scenes is droll, verging upon deadpan. That package proves to be a veritable Pandora's box, with the young man, Sebastien (Georges Babluani, the director's brother), discovering detailed instructions that will prompt him to assume the dead man's identity and take off for a hotel, off-season and deep in the countryside, where a clandestine high-stakes gambling tournament has attracted around 40 men, virtually all middle-aged and older. What the game entails and its rules won't be revealed here, but "13 Tzameti" -- "tzameti" is the number 13 in Georgian -- is not for the faint of heart.

Every frame of the film reveals Babluani's confidence and sound judgment. Instead of staging the film's initial sequence like a conventional thriller, Babluani evokes a somber, even leisurely mood, suggesting the plight of Sebastien, an intelligent young man all too aware of his meager prospects in life. This mood extends all the way into that rural resort, abruptly giving way to shocking intensity.

At times Babluani recalls the austerity, the closely observed fascination with secretive ritual, of Robert Bresson, yet he expresses these qualities -- in ravishing black-and-white CinemaScope -- with a poetic cinematic grace that is all his own. As an actor, Georges Babluani possesses the same resources, with a special understanding of the effect of emotional reserves held in check. Although it's likely too stark for everyone, "13 Tzameti" offers a mind-blowing experience for anyone willing to go along for the ride.


'13 Tzameti'

MPAA rating: Unrated. Strong, non-exploitative violence, wholly inappropriate for children.

A Palm Pictures release. Writer-director Gela Babluani. Cinematographer Tariel Meliava. Editor Noemie Moreau. In French with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

Exclusively at Landmark's Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A. (310) 281-8223

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