This French film noir caught me completely off guard. In fact, there were moments when I realized I was holding my breath and not blinking. Never have I been so anxious at the sight of a light bulb!
In 13 Tzameti, a poor young man named Sébastien is hired to help repair the roof of a man who ends up dying of an overdose. Just before his death, a letter with instructions was mailed to him and ends up in the hands of our young protagonist. With Sébastien's family struggling for money, and having overheard enough to ascertain that following the instructions might lead to a payoff, he begins following the instructions. Little does he know the bleak situation he is about to find himself in.
Before reading any further, I would like to strongly urge you to stop here if you haven't seen the movie. Everything you've read so far is everything I knew about the movie before I watched it, and I can say that it definitely enhanced the film's effect on me.
During the first ten to fifteen minutes I felt bewildered, trying to understand what I was seeing. People are popping up and spying on the house Sébastien is working on. The old man is staggering around on the beach in a stupor. Some guy is snapping closeups of the mailbox as the old man who was staggering around minutes ago retrieves the mail. As Sébastien is working on the roof, he begins overhearing bits and pieces of conversation and realizes that this old man has gotten into something that is both treacherous and rewarding. By the time the old man locks himself in the bathroom and dies of an overdose (I think), the story began to snap in place and my interest was definitely peaked.
Seeking adventure, excitement, fame, Sébastien takes the letter and steps into the old man's place. Again, the bewilderment starts up, just as in the beginning of the movie. It's at this point I realized the movie is doing a spectacular job of making me feel the way Sébastien does. He goes to a hotel that has been paid for already, receives an anonymous phone call with further instructions, and then ends up on a train. Next, he is picked up by another mystery man and dropped off in the middle of nowhere. As he stands there a car finally pulls up and flashes a number at him (13). Sébastien reaches into his coat and removes the same piece of material, with the same number printed on it, and holds it up. Then, they're off to who knows where. All the while, Sébastien is being followed by what seem to be good guys, or some authority of sorts.
At this point, I'm sitting straight up in my chair, madly wondering what is about to happen to Sébastien.
Confused, and a tad worried, Sébastien finds himself in the middle of some game, where his life is being used to entertain and thrill wealthy gamblers. The game begins with all thirteen "players" standing in a circle. They each load a revolver with a single bullet, spin the barrel over and over, and then aim at the person in front of them. They are forced to stare up at a single light bulb and wait for it to illuminate. As soon as it flicks on, they are to pull the trigger. I can't tell you how dismal, how bleak, how morose, this scene was. Everything played right for the movie to execute the feeling of despair and moral ambiguity for Sébastien.
After the first round, a few bodies are discarded, and the players retire to a break room. Most of the players (perhaps all of them) have done this before and use drugs and alcohol to get through it. Sébastien chooses to stay sober, shocked and appalled by what is happening around him. Meanwhile, the gamblers who have now lost their players work to place bets on remaining players.
As the rounds continue, the number of bullets placed in the chamber increases, and eventually there are only two players left: Sébastien and some guy whose name I cannot remember. We'll call him Guy, which happens to be French anyway! So, Sébastien and Guy face off in the "duel." The film really got me on the duel part. The hammer on each gun drops and produces nothing, I exhale and think it's over, but the moderator calls for two bullets to be added to each gun. Once again, the movie fulfilled its intention to flood me with Sébastien's dread.
I guess I expected the ending that the movie gave us. All along everything about it exuded a funereal ambiance, not only with what was happening to the characters, but with it being black-and-white as well. Sébastien manages to escape with his cut of the money, which I didn't expect. I thought the movie was going to go the route of the wealthy men killing him and getting their money back, but I guess that was too obvious. Instead, he is able to send money to his impoverished family and almost escape. Instead, he is killed later on a train by Guy's brother, who happened to be the one gambling on Guy's life during the game.
A brilliant film, 13 Tzameti; artistic, creative, harrowing. I found it difficult to write a review that would serve this movie half the justice watching it would. Its story will haunt me forever.