Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s The Tribe has ridden an enticing hook—it’s performed entirely in sign language, with no subtitles—to considerable critical and festival acclaim. But is there much to it beyond the admittedly fascinating formal gimmick? While it’s tempting to dismiss the familiarity of the film’s Eastern European miserablism, it’s also near-impossible to separate the unusual dynamic of the delivery from the well-worn material. As enervating as another trip through bleak violence and sex trafficking may be, there’s an undeniably compelling frisson in the The Tribe’s unique mixture of brutality and silence.
Set in a Ukrainian boarding school for deaf teenagers (with more than a hint of the anarchy in Jean Vigo’s Zero de conduite), The Tribe is quick to establish that it won’t be a politically correct exercise in empathy for the physically impaired. The film paints a social hierarchy as vicious as that of any high school, with new student Serhiy (Hryhoriy Fesenko) inducted into a gang of teenage male miscreants whose pursuits involve smoking, drinking, petty robbery, and pimping out two of their female classmates at a local truck yard. Slaboshypytskiy and his DP Valentyn Vasyanovych shoot many of these scenes in supple, nervous long takes, at times tracking with Kubrickian menace through bombed-out school corridors, and at others roaming and stalking with hand-held virtuosity to cultivate a rich sense of unease (there’s a bravura shot in the truckyard that serves as a neat sampler of the movie’s considerable technical verve).
For anyone not steeped in silent cinema, it’s surprising just how easy it is to adjust to the world on screen—relayed solely as it is through gesture—and how quickly the lack of dialogue renders an audience more intuitive to action and camera movement. By extension, the formal presentation soon becomes second nature, foregrounding the lesser appeal of the content. There are tensions and squabbles, fights and backstabbings; all the hallmarks of any youth-gone-wrong picture. The Tribe is committed to being especially grim, with even moments of ostensible pleasure—like consensual sex scenes in abandoned boiler rooms—rife with a mechanical matter-of-factness that uncomfortably flirts with rape. Once the technical rigor wears off, however, there’s a sense of predictability to the characters’ downward spiral—admirably determined to deliver an unsympathetic view of humanity, sure, but standard-issue “confronting” material just the same. Who knew that even deaf kids were engaged in sex trafficking in Eastern Europe?
It’s the details that make The Tribe worth seeing. Conceptual stunt or not, it’s hard not to be impressed by the disquieting effect of the film’s silence. Beyond the obvious tension between the violent acts and “calm” atmosphere, things that either get buried or go unnoticed in other films rise to unsettling prominence: the serrated thrum of fluorescent lights in halls, the chafing of clothes against bodies, the dull thud of kicks and punches, the vaguely repellant squelch of intercourse—The Tribe invites the viewer to listen to these closely, as they’re equally loud in the mix with the movie’s primary vernacular of tapping of fingers on hands. The effect can be physically and emotionally rupturing: the loudest, most abrasive vocal element in the film, for example, comes from the pained yelps of a girl in the midst of a backroom abortion.
Perhaps the greatest takeaway from The Tribe is just how well it illustrates narrative cinema’s overreliance on dialogue to tell stories. Without a single word exchanged, verbally or via on screen text, Slaboshypytskiy’s film clearly, concisely conveys a story, emotional arcs, and rounded-enough characters—not to mention doing it all with a distinct lack of music with which to goose audience reactions. For all the familiarity of the film’s content, it’s a helpful formal reminder that talk is indeed cheap.
Published at Movie Mezzanine