By Zhuo-Ning Su.
The Ukranian dramatic thriller The Tribe marks the arrival of a major directorial talent in Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, who delivers a feature debut here that’s artistically challenging, topically provocative, stylistically assured, and an all-around daring, alluring, searing work of vision. Set in an educational institution for the deaf and mute, the entire movie is acted out in sign language without any translation, subtitles or voice-over. From the very start, the viewer is thrown head-first into a world devoid of speech and made to stay there for a 132 minute runtime that often feels like such a compressed vacuum that it literally takes your breath away. If the very first scenes, as curiously indistinct as they are observed from across the street or the edge of a ritualistic assembly, don’t yet make the one-of-a-kind quality of this film known, you soon find yourself in (apparently) the principal’s office with the new, introverted student Sergey (Grigory Fesenko), followed by an exchange completely impenetrable to anyone unversed in the art of signing.
There will be many more situations like this, in which one has no way of knowing what’s being said, ordered, questioned, debated, but the brilliance of the director lies exactly in the fact that he understands human communication, even when stripped of all conversational tools, can sneak through the most imperceptible channels and light a spark of recognition on the most subliminal level. Indeed, one quickly realizes no words are needed to convey such primal fears of exclusion, exploitation or abuse. And in the practiced efficiency with which tasks are carried out and hierarchy established on the school compound, one can readily spot a sinister enterprise long before the actual criminal acts begin. Of course, this implies a much more instinctual and less precise form of comprehension, which ultimately counts against the relatability of the script, but the emotional ripples it stirs up are just as real. An argument between two girls via a lot of furious gesticulating later in the film, for example, baffles in terms of its exact meaning but remains utterly compelling to watch for the sheer passion it captures.
Further enhancing the unique experience of following a story without always being informed of what’s happening are the strong visual and aural imprint of Slaboshpitsky’s hand. Scenes set in a crowded student cafeteria are silent except for the busy clutter of cutlery, as well as scenes depicting a group visit to an amusement park at night with only the creaking of the merry-go-around audible, are intensely sound-focused and disturb with an inherent strangeness. An extended sequence of a complete gynecological procedure shows all the motions gone through with rapt attention and inflicts an almost physical pain through those unblinking eyes. Combining both elements, a carefully choreographed public fight/mob scene staged against waves of eerily muted cheers engenders such peculiar artificiality and ceremoniousness that one suspects it would make Lars von Trier proud. These directorial tricks wouldn’t work without the support of an able technical team, and, especially in the case of the visual department, first-time cinematographer Valentyn Vasyanovych impresses with a tremendous sense of space. There is nothing amateurish or accidental about his camera, which expands and constricts its view with purpose and design, filling the images with geometrical cues and a tangible aliveness too glorious to go unnoticed.
As hinted above, the writing on the film (also by Slaboshpitsky) isn’t as watertight as the directing. On the one hand there’s the built-in problem of limited articulation, which prevents us from being totally sure of some finer points of the plot and thus identifying with the characters with more conviction. On the other, the plotting itself is a little repetitive at times, especially with the prostitution scheme enacted time and again. And if it’s not supposed to be an attack on the social reality in the Ukraine, the general lack of supervision within this facility also feels unaccounted for. Another smaller weakness is the performance by Fesenko in the lead role, which might be too unvaried to bring the viewer closer. These faults in screenwriting and acting contribute to an extremely violent ending that seems to be carried by too little context except simple-minded rage. Even so, the journey leading up to that blood-splattered point is an absolutely transfixing one and it gratifies to no end seeing such fearless creative risk-taking pay off with flying colors while witnessing an impossible idea realized with big, confident gestures.
Zhuo-Ning Su is a PhD candidate in law at the Free University of Berlin. His writing on film has appeared in The Berlin Film Journal and EXBERLINER.