Alfred Hitchcock once opined that a correctly designed picture should elicit screams from a Japanese audience at the same time as an Indian audience. Language, in other words, shouldn’t be a barrier to experiencing the thrill of the cinema. Two particular films released in 2015 loudly echo Hitch’s inestimable wisdom: First, George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road, and now Ukrainian filmmaker Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s The Tribe, a 2014 joint that’s long off the festival circuit and enjoying its theatrical run through the U.S. this summer. If you’ve only heard whispers and murmurs about the film, then you no doubt are aware that it’s presented entirely in sign language and boasts zero subtitles. Let that sink in for a moment and properly daunt you.
The good news about The Tribe is that it makes sense, which only damns the movie with faint praise if you think that translating sign for an international audience without actually translating it at all is a cinch. Part of the credit goes to Slaboshpytskiy’s cast of actors, most whom are deaf and non-professional; they each make the very act of communicating into a bravura dramatic performance. The rest, of course, goes to Slaboshpytskiy, who finds the most elegantly human corridor possible to engage his viewers by starting The Tribe off as a simple tale about the desire to fit in.
When the film begins, we meet young Serhiy (Grygoriy Fesenko), a shy kid enrolling in a boarding school for the deaf, where he knows nobody and has no one to turn to. Once classes end for the day and the teachers go home, though, Serhiy is quickly embroiled in the activities of the teenage mafia running the place. They’re an authoritative and violent lot; anyone who steps out of line takes a beating, and people on the streets or in train cars are routinely clobbered or burgled by the group’s foot soldiers. At night, two girls – Anya (Yana Novikova) and Svetka (Roza Babiy) – get pimped out to truckers hunkered in their cabs for the night. Serhiy is put in charge of this arm of the operation and falls in something resembling love with Anya, which leads to complications and other problems that make up the bulk of The Tribe’s drama.
Slaboshpytskiy plays in the same sandbox as directors like Oshima, Brook, Truffaut, Clark, and Vigo; the kids aren’t alright. In point of fact, they’re kind of scary. It’s easy to imagine a narrative where Slaboshpytskiy grew up influenced by Hitchcock and concocted The Tribe to honor the great director’s memory. In truth, all of The Tribe’s drama is siphoned from or inspired by real life anecdotes about Ukraine’s deaf communities, which Slaboshpytskiy presumably collected through good old fashioned qualitative research. We’re not talking about half-assed, navel-gazing homage here. We’re talking about art reenacting life. Put another way, it doesn’t matter where Slaboshpytskiy got the idea for The Tribe; he’s knocked out a debut feature whose somber horror can be understood by viewers from any reach of the globe.
That would be an amazing accomplishment even if his film didn’t have anything else going for it beyond its astonishing universal coherence, but The Tribe does more than make the foreign understandable. Slaboshpytskiy has made a movie that’s enhanced by its setting and sub-culture in ways that are organic rather than gimmicky (assuming you foolishly consider sign language a “gimmick”); cinematographer Valentyn Vasyanovych shoots in long takes that are as much an element of style as they are a logistical necessity. When you’re telling a story for a hearing audience, you can cut up dialogue like a Thanksgiving turkey without garbling it. Try splicing scenes of people furiously gesticulating at one another and see what happens. (Short version: Stuff and nonsense.) The Tribe’s essential craft holds us in its thrall with chilling ease. Those steady, sobering shots give every action Serhiy and his ilk take a gut-punching impact. We feel our growing discomfort deep in our stomachs, a leaden ball of anxiety warning us of worse to come.
Much has been said in the press about the film’s distressing brutality and misogyny-tinged nudity. In truth, The Tribe isn’t any more of a shocker than your average episode of Game of Thrones in terms of its body count and flesh parades; bloodshed is rare, the graphic sex less so, but Slaboshpytskiy never lets the content feel gratuitous. When The Tribe gets its hands dirty, it does so with purpose and without rubbing our faces in viscera. There’s a reason for each mugging, a need for every sixty-nine, a function to the institutionalized criminality that drives the world that these characters inhabit, and the camera lens captures it all without flinching. Look away if you must, for all the good it’ll do; Slaboshpytskiy and Vasyanovych have given us nowhere to look away to.
Director: Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy
Film Length: 130 minutes
September 11, 2014 (Ukraine)
July 17, 2015 (Wide)
Distributor: Drafthouse Films