As many of you know, my biggest cinematic pet peeve is that a lot of American filmmakers ignore the rule of “show, don’t tell.” Leave it to the Russians to follow that rule to a T with their intense drama, THE TRIBE. With only sign language – no spoken dialogue or subtitles – and a cast of non-professional actors, director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s experimental Ukrainian drama is shocking, provocative, envelope-pushing, unflinching and wildly daring.
Mild-mannered deaf-mute teen Sergey (Grigory Fesenko) is a new student at a boarding school for deaf students, and he’s not off to a very good start. Not only is he late on his first day of class, which earns him the ire of his principal, he also gets in a fight with the school’s blonde bully (the Ukrainian William Zabka), who runs with a gang of suits (business and jogging) into bribery, prostitution and robbery. However, just when it looks like Sergey will be spending the rest of the year eating lunch with the special needs kid (who’s also quite cruel to him), one of the suits (Alexander Dsiadevich) introduces him their leader (Ivan Tishko). As Sergey begins assimilating into the tribe’s violent ways, he falls for their leader’s girlfriend, who’s also a prostitute (Yana Novikova). Things grow more complicated and complex from there.
I wish I had seen this with someone who knew Ukrainian sign language (that’s next level translation for all of you playing at home), as it would open up a whole new conversation. THE TRIBE is intense and violent at times. It’s probably deliciously sick of me to say, but it almost works best when it’s at its most shocking. Maybe it’s the way the writer-director builds to that point of explosion. The combination of his camera technique (which primarily utilizes establishing and medium shots to let the actors have room for their expressive gestures), foreboding atmosphere, and the narrative climax work in tandem to create brilliance. Slaboshpytskiy, along with his DP Valentyn Vasanovych, utilize an intense black and blue color palette echoing the film’s bruising nature.
The abortion scene, while gratuitous, is unflinching. It doubles down on anything the Romanian film 4 MONTHS 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS showed us – and in far less time. Themes are illustrated brilliantly: Setting the film at a decaying dorm reflects how morals and values can rot when left unattended. As shown through the school’s cliques vs. outsiders dynamic, the hive mind can be a far more powerful force than independent thought. Plus we see how Frankenstein-like monsters can eclipse their creators’ intentions in the most unsettling of manners. Best of all, it doesn’t shy away from showcasing consequences.
That said, the film unfortunately suffers from a few lulls in energy. From the visit to the immigration office, to filling out paperwork for passports, to the scene where a sex-crazed Sergey monstrously ransacks his shop teacher’s living quarters looking for money, several scenes are a little too long in the tooth. They put the brakes on the narrative’s forward momentum. Nevertheless, the film haunts viewers far after the film ends. It shines a spotlight on a harsh, cruel brutality some may find hard to tolerate.