Actions, emotions and desperate impulses speak far louder than words in “The Tribe,” a formally audacious coup de cinema that marks a stunning writing-directing debut for Ukrainian filmmaker Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy. Set largely within the walls of a boarding school for the deaf that reveals itself as a violent cesspool of organized crime, this bleak, pitiless yet weirdly exhilarating drama is performed entirely in sign language by an ensemble of non-professional young actors, with nary a subtitle nor a syllable of spoken dialogue — a demanding high-concept stunt that accrues multiple layers of meaning as the picture moves toward its bone-chilling conclusion. Breathtakingly controlled, riveting even at its most inscrutable, this worthy winner of three Cannes Critics’ Week prizes looks to be a significant conversation-piece at every festival it plays, and should parlay glowing critical response into serious arthouse exposure.
It will be especially interesting to see what deaf viewers make of Slaboshpytskiy’s highly accomplished first feature; engrossingly expanded from the writer-director’s 2010 short, “Deafness,” it’s an unflinchingly pessimistic portrait of a youthful underground subculture that has dealt with its social disadvantages by turning to thuggery and prostitution. Given the emotional/inspirational thrust of so many movies and TV shows (from “Children of a Lesser God” to TV’s “Switched at Birth”) featuring deaf characters, who are often presented in relation to their hearing friends and family, there’s something coldly bracing about “The Tribe’s” total immersion strategy, as well as its utter refusal to sentimentalize its characters and the harsh, isolated world they inhabit.
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Our guide to that world is Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko), a young man whom we first see making his way to the school where he has just enrolled. As he adjusts to his new environment — after being welcomed by a teacher into a classroom, he’s quickly initiated into his fellow students’ decidedly less educational activities — the film establishes a visual style of meticulously composed widescreen master shots, alternating fixed perspectives with occasional camera movements orchestrated in long, fluid single takes. (The cinematographer is Valentyn Vasyanovych, making his own knockout feature debut.)
It’s a rigorous aesthetic that seasoned festivalgoers and arthouse patrons will immediately recognize (especially those familiar with a certain strain of Eastern European realist cinema), and it’s uniquely suited to one of the director’s chief aims here, which is to convey a form of sustained, non-verbal communication among large groups of individuals. For those with little or no understanding of sign language (presumably most of the audience), “The Tribe” will prove a sometimes perplexing yet endlessly stimulating viewing experience that demands, and rewards, the closest kind of attention. Sans dialogue or translation, each interaction effectively becomes a puzzle to be solved, and Slaboshpytskiy is brilliant at using ambiguity to heighten rather than dull the viewer’s perceptions. Even when the meaning of a particular exchange eludes us, a greater sense of narrative comprehension begins to take hold.
After a few obligatory hazing rituals, Sergey is adopted into “the tribe” of the title, where he’s put to work as a low-ranking thug in a gang with a surprisingly clear hierarchy. First he takes part in a few petty robberies, and eventually he becomes a pimp, dragging around two female classmates who service drivers at a nightly truck stop. (Sergey’s predecessor in this role actually died on the job, as seen in a sequence executed with great ingenuity and pitch-black humor.) Very much in on the sordid proceedings is the school’s woodshop teacher, who’s planning to send the girls abroad to Italy — a scheme that runs into trouble when Sergey makes the mistake of falling for one of them, Anna (played with fire and vulnerability by Yana Novikova). This occasions several explicit lovemaking scenes in which some of the more adventurous sexual positions seem to have been dictated, at least in part, by the rigid symmetry of the frame.
Sergey and Anna’s affair represents a fateful breach of the gang’s literally unspoken laws, and from there “The Tribe” becomes a mesmerizing and methodically detailed procedural, observing as a hotheaded lone wolf steps out of line and is duly punished by the designated alphas. The consequences are grim and harrowing, never more so than in one extended sequence so unsparing that you may wish, for once, that Slaboshpytskiy would avert his gaze. But he never does, instead maintaining an unblinking concentration as Sergey is moved to swift, decisive action, paving the way for a shockingly brutal finale.
At times the film’s formalist approach conveys the feeling of being eerily suspended in an alien environment, one where everyone has adopted sign language not as a substitute for speech, but as a defiant, even triumphant alternative. At other times — as when a mass melee seems to break out almost in slow-motion, or when a robbery unfolds in a left-to-right Steadicam shot — we could be watching a bizarre dance performance as enacted by a silent flash mob. For a picture set amid such unrelenting ugliness (Vlad Odudenko’s grotty production design is all harshly lit corridors and graffiti-strewn exteriors), “The Tribe” offers no shortage of aesthetic satisfactions: As an intricate exercise in group choreography, it’s never less than fascinating to behold, while Sergiy Stepanskiy’s vividly detailed sound design fills in the aural vacuum, registering every slap, punch and sharp intake of breath.
But Slaboshpytskiy’s film is finally most remarkable for the way it strips its characters to their raw, ferocious essence, while still allowing them to fully retain their distinctiveness as individuals. Operating well beyond the fringes of respectable society, these young men and women may well be the pawns and agents of a cruelly exploitative system, but they still come across as thinking, feeling human beings, each one desperately trying to assert his or her own place in a ruthless ruling order. To that end, these untrained actors perform with an intense, abrasive physicality that’s almost frightening in its eloquence; dialogue has rarely seemed more superfluous, as every gesture feels charged with attitude and emotion. The purity of expression Slaboshpytskiy achieves here may well take some viewers back to the silent era, but in finding its own bold cinematic language, “The Tribe” feels like something unmistakably, radically new.