For 22-year-old Sebastien (George Babluani), life is a constant struggle to keep his impoverished immigrant family in small money. While mending a roof, he eavesdrops on his latest employer, the elderly and decrepit morphine addict Godon (Philippe Passon), who, though equally down on his luck, is awaiting a mysterious letter that might just lead to a fortune. When Godon dies, Sebastien intercepts the letter and follows its trail of cryptic instructions, hoping to make a killing. Yet his casual gamble turns out to have higher stakes and worse odds than he could ever have imagined, as he finds himself surrounded by hard-faced men in an isolated location, where he quickly loses his innocence and risks losing his life.

Winner of the Best First Feature Award at the 2005 Venice Film Festival, Gela Babluani's 13 first draws viewers in with a convoluted layering of enigmas - what exactly is Godon awaiting, and who, besides Sebastien, is keeping watch on him? What does the envelope contain? What is the significance of the film's title? - and then, once all is revealed and the game has begun, keeps its grip on the audience with some tautly handled scenes of human desperation and depravity.

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Where all this might sound like the standard fare of a mystery thriller - and 13 is certainly that - the film displays a formal austerity where less is most definitely more. The spare screenplay, elliptical editing, minimalist characterisation and black-and-white cinematography combine to create a bare, Spartan world whose grim realism readily attracts to itself some allegorical shadings. It is easy to believe (if disturbing to contemplate) that a conspiracy like the one that ensnares Sebastien might really exist, but at the same time it offers a vivid metaphor for, say, the way that capitalism consumes lives as well as goods, or that the West coldly exploits the needy and the marginalised for its own gain.

What happens to Sebastien and his fellow "numbers" may be a dramatic fiction, but the manner in which they are lured with the promise of money, controlled through drug dependency and objectified for the cruel pleasures of men, makes them not so very different, gender aside, from the prostitutes (typically Eastern European, like Sebastien himself) that can be found installed in our cities' brothels. In this way, 13 brings the gambling fantasy of Intacto together with the social commentary of Lilya 4-ever to portray the brotherhood of man at its most brittle.

Son of the famous Georgian director Temur Babluani, Gela has debuted with an impressively noirish moral fable that, for all its bleakness, offers ample rewards to those willing to take a chance on it.

Reviewed on: 05 Jan 2006
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Man becomes sucked into a potentially fatal gambling ring.
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Director: Gela Babluani

Writer: Gela Babluani

Starring: George Babluani, Aurelien Recoing, Philippe Passon, Pascal Bongard, Vania Villers, Fred Ulysse, Augustin Legrand, Joe Prestia, Christophe Vandevelde

Year: 2005

Runtime: 95 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: France/Georgia


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