The Tribe Dir. Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy

[Drafthouse; 2014]

Styles: (mostly) silent, bashcore
Others: I Stand Alone, American History X

They rob, they brutalize, they pimp out girls who live in their dorm. The Tribe is a group of criminals based in an institute for deaf youth, possibly a kind of deaf juvie, in Ukraine. We’re introduced to this world by the roving steadicam that follows puppy-dog-faced new kid Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko), who is promptly beaten, shaken down and thrown out of his assigned room by the other boys. Soon he gets jumped in and is put to work.

The film’s fascinating obstruction is that the dialogue is entirely in Ukranian sign language, without subtitles. This creates a reversal of the deaf/hearing relationship, putting the hearing viewer in the position of straining to grasp meaning from context and body language, and to struggle in vain to imagine what the gestures might mean. It’s a powerful dramatic device: the near-silence heightens the impact of a series of very violent scenes — the verisimilitude of soft sounds makes them in a sense more terrifying than loud ones. When we do finally hear a human voice, it’s the oddly pitched screams of agony of a young woman as she submits to a grueling, no-anesthesia abortion.

At first glance the film has a documentary quality, with its non-actors and raw acts of violence, but there’s a definite theatricality to the staging and the cinematography: the action unfolds in long, static, uncut wide shots that often conclude by gliding off to follow one of the characters out of the scene. The lack of dialogue is clearly a contrivance in certain situations, like in the wordless transactions between Sergey and the (ostensibly non-deaf) truck drivers he pimps the girls out to. This creates a bit of a fantasy space in which the story can be thought of as an allegory, possibly a bleak take on the state of the world, or on the base nature of man.

The story takes a soft turn when Sergey pays his prostitute classmate Anna (Yana Novikova) for sex. When he starts to gently caress her butt, it’s actually shocking — the first sign of human warmth in the movie. Following the lineage of European arthouse auteurs from Godard to Fassbinder, director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy takes American film noir as his template: Sergey’s sensitive side is brutally punished and soon turns into its opposite.

The film at times spins off into sequences of pure cinema, not particularly motivated by story but very cool to watch: in particular a shot that covers side by side, nearly identical scenes, framed behind identical wrought-iron grates. The gestured dialogue has a pantomime quality, flailing arms and hands expressing the equivalent of angry screams are reminiscent of silent-era cartoons. Anna’s professional approach to sex has a Nomi Malone bucking vigor that parallels the physicality of her “voice.”

If there’s a weakness to the film, it’s the linear quality of the story: while the action itself is uniquely raw and shocking, Sergey’s trajectory is all too predictable. The film’s worldview is as blunt as the violence it portrays, and with the exception of Sergey’s love for Anna its characters operate 100 percent in survival mode, which I guess is plausible (or is it?), but not a lot to hang your hat on. Slaboshpytskiy is a fantastic stylist, and he’s certainly got balls; it’ll be interesting to see if he can set down the hammer and carve some layers of ambiguity into his next film.

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