Editor’s note: Our review of THE TRIBE originally ran during last year’s Fantastic Fest, but we’re re-posting it now as the film opens in limited release.
A young man arrives at a new boarding school, but his attempts to fit in are thwarted by the criminal element ingrained in his classmates. A brief initiation brawl leads to his inclusion into the family and soon he’s stealing, scamming and mugging alongside his new friends. It’s not long before he’s promoted to the role of pimp and guardian to two female students who bump and grind for cash at truck stops, but when he falls for one of the girls his job grows a bit trickier, leading to an unavoidably violent conflict with his partners in crime.
The story at the center of the new Ukrainian film, The Tribe, is as basic as they come, and the characters fare no better as they lack depth, show no growth and fail to make an emotional connection with viewers. The film is also a slog at times as the director’s penchant for long takes results in dull stretches of repetitive, inessential action.
Oh, and all of the characters are deaf, they communicate through sign language, there’s no spoken dialogue and there are no subtitles. This conceit – and let’s be honest, it is a conceit – forces viewers to look beyond the expected dialogue to comprehend behaviors and lives that at their core are very human. Even with its numerous issues though, the film remains a must-watch for movie lovers and anyone who appreciates filmmakers who take bold steps in uncharted directions to tell stories in unconventional ways.
Writer/director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s experiment posits the idea that human actions and interactions don’t always need translation, and as the film unfolds before our eyes the truth of his belief comes clear. The characters engage each other and their surroundings, and with only a few exceptions – why are they going to Italy? are there any responsible adults in this school? – we’re never left completely in the dark as to what’s happening or being discussed. There’s an intuitive nature to the film that allows viewers to follow along even without the benefit of translation.
It helps that the plot is bare bones in its simplicity, but it still feels like an accomplishment to watch scenes and conversations unfold in what amounts to a foreign language and still follow along with a competent understanding. It’s not as simple as taking a foreign film and turning off the subtitles as most films wouldn’t be able to deliver the same level of comprehension without those translations, but here we understand what’s happening by way of visual cues and clues. Anger and aggression don’t need words, and neither do obsession, pain and amusement. What would normally be detected in tone or volume instead comes across in a flurry of hand motions. They’re universal feelings, and the film manages to tell a story where the nitty-gritty details simply don’t matter.
But by the same token this isn’t exactly a revolutionary feat. Films as diverse as Jean-Jacques Annaud’s The Bear, the recent Oscar nominee All Is Lost and Kim Ki-duk’s most beautiful film, 3-Iron all succeed in telling rich, compelling tales with an absolute minimum of spoken dialogue. Film is a visual medium after all so this should surprise no one, but the number of filmmakers willing to craft features that aren’t reliant on the words emanating from their actors’ mouths are minimal.
The distinction here is that the film’s universally deaf characters are played by deaf performers. Yes it remains a conceit, but it surpasses mere gimmick by what it achieves. We’re dropped into what amounts to a foreign land – the Ukraine, a school mostly devoid of adult influence, a world where all communication is accomplished via sign language – but rather than feel like an outsider eternally a few steps behind, we soon discover just how easy it is to understand what they’re “saying” and experiencing. This shouldn’t be a revelation, but it feels like one all the same.
Visually the film is basically a series of long takes, and while many of them draw attention to themselves by virtue of their dullness, several others stand out as immersive and impressive. Cinematographer Valentyn Vasyanovych follows characters through winding stairwells and train car walkways, and watches unblinking as they engage in acts both carnal and banal. There are memorable sequences here – the final ten minutes in particular – but some are due to less than positive reasons. Watching characters rummage through cupboards or literally fill out forms for ten minutes at a time is unnecessary and excessive.
Slaboshpitsky also tries to shock viewers with a handful of fairly graphic sequences involving sex and a somewhat traumatic abortion. The scenes are effective enough with the latter one in particular guaranteed to leave audience members cringing in their seats. Unfortunately though, the scenes are pushed too far, and in the quest for graphic realism the unreality of the scenes becomes a distraction.
There’s no getting around the fact that The Tribe is not a very good film. It drags relentlessly, it’s devoid of engaging characters and the story is a flimsy narrative built on the most basic of plot turns, but it remains a commendable and at times fascinating experience making it a must-see for cinephiles. So proceed accordingly, I guess?
The Upside: Unique; some impressive and attractive long takes; the ending
The Downside: Too many unnecessary long takes in need of a trim; zero character depth; flat and simple story; poor attempts to shock with graphic imagery
On the Side: Slaboshpitsky directed four short films prior to making his feature debut including one titled Deafness.