I think 13 Tzameti would have been a bit hard for me to follow anyway, but with the added burdens of reading subtitles and trying to understand events in the context of a foreign culture, I’m sure I missed a lot of what was going on. (It’s also shot in black and white, making it even more of a struggle to watch.) I read more about this movie before watching it than I typically do, so I at least knew the general plot going in. Without that head start, I think I would have been a lot more lost for at least the first third or so of the movie.
A 22 year old man scraping by as a roofer overhears some conversations and gets involved enough in the lives of the couple he’s working for to pick up on the fact that they are involved in some kind of nefarious activity that they will shortly be paid a significant amount of money for. He finds out that specific instructions are to arrive in the mail shortly. When the man he’s working for dies of a drug overdose, he intercepts the package and decides to take his place so he can earn the money instead.
I don’t know what he thinks he’s getting involved in (I’m guessing he thinks he’ll be a drug courier or something), but he seems strangely calm about the whole thing as he follows the instructions and meets up with the bad guys.
Once he finds out what he’s volunteered for, it’s too late to back out.
It turns out he is one of a number of contestants recruited for a nightmarish Russian roulette-style game. The players are the equivalent of race horses, owned by a group of sadists who collect purses on them derived from high stakes wagering from spectators.
The players hold guns to each other’s heads, firing on a signal. The survivors move on to the next round. Of course, any player who refuses to follow the procedure is killed, so as bad as the odds are, you’re still better off participating. After several rounds, two survivors are chosen at random for a climactic “duel” where each person is now pointing his gun at the person who is pointing a gun at him.
It’s a monstrous enough situation that it can’t help but be at least somewhat emotionally powerful to observe. Not only are you watching this circle of players who know that most of them are about to die, but you also are provoked to contemplate just how depraved are the people who set up and run this game. (Though if you replace the contestants with workers, the owners with capitalists, the bettors with investors, etc., I suppose it’s not that much different from how real people behave in real life.)
But on the other hand, it wasn’t as powerful to me as it could have been.
For one thing—and this isn’t the fault of the film—there’s a bit of an emotional disconnect for me when it’s a foreign, subtitled film. I’m reading the words rather than hearing them. There may even be something about the body language and other subtle clues that makes me better able at some subconscious level to empathize with people “like me” than these people who are unfamiliar in style.
(I say that, but there are certain foreign films that have definitely gotten through to me emotionally, so I’m not sure what to think.)
And the main character just never seems to react all that strongly to his situation. Yes, he’s stressed, but there’s something unreal about his behavior. It’s not like I know precisely how a square would react to being dropped into this life-or-death situation unexpectedly, but I would imagine it would be something more than going along with it all and looking nervous doing so. Hard to say.
There’s also the factor that due to this being a movie, you can be pretty darn confident that the main character will survive to either be killed in the last round or not at all. (I’m reminded of an old Mad magazine parody of The Poseidon Adventure. Some of the passengers are struggling to decide whether to stay where they are, or to follow the Gene Hackman character and others in search of a speculative escape route. Then it dawns on one of them, “Come on! Of course we should go with the big name actors and not hang out here with a bunch of extras,” because the latter group is the one that will predictably get wiped out in the opening minutes of the movie.) So that lessens the suspense considerably, at least as to the fate of that specific individual.
I also found myself thinking about the flaws of the procedures established for the game. The main one that bothered me is that the arrangement encourages “false start” errors, which would really screw things up when they happen. I mean, think about how often sprinters false start in an infinitely less stressful situation. Here surely some people will “jump the gun” (so to speak) and fire before the signal, and because it can’t be undone the way the overeager sprinter’s error can be, there would be all kinds of problems grading the bets.
This would especially be an issue in the final, “duel” round, since that’s one-on-one. The other rounds you’re not really helping your chances by firing too quickly. You’re potentially taking out the player in front of you, but he’s not the one about to shoot you, the guy behind you is. Whereas in the final round, if you fire first, and there happens to be a bullet in your chamber, then you survive regardless of where the bullet was in your opponent’s gun. So there’s a huge difference between firing first versus firing second.
Anyway, I got caught up in the game somewhat, but not completely. And the parts before and after that didn’t hold my interest very well, and in fact I only could vaguely follow them.
So the game will probably stick in my mind for a while, but 13 Tzameti overall is not a film I’d rate real high.
(By the way, the title’s dumb. “Tzameti” is the Georgian word for “thirteen.” So if you want to call your movie Thirteen, you should do so in either English or Georgian, not both. “13 tzameti” in effect means “thirteen thirteen.”)