Somewhere between a silent film and a staging of the Stations of the Cross as if masterminded by Jacques Tati, The Tribe feels like the primordial beginnings of something spectacular. This isn’t to say that it comes off as unfinished, or the work of an amateur finding his footing—instead, Ukrainian writer and director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy has crafted a debut that breathes with preternatural beauty. Operating on a nearly subconscious level, with a mind for something unspeakably visceral, The Tribe is, in other words, an indelible film. Full of sadness and stubbornness and a kind of cosmic anger, it seeks abandon through destruction, starting with humanity’s first and best crutch: language.
In an opening title card, The Tribe plainly tells the audience that the film, all in sign language and cast with mostly non-professional actors, will provide no subtitles, spoken dialogue or voice overs. It’s the only bit of handholding Slaboshpytskiy attempts, preparing the audience to pay attention, to figure out the film’s story through gestures and fevered body movements. But if the concession seems strange for a director who’d rather just let the images speak for themselves, the more we become invested in, entranced by, what Slaboshpytskiy shows us, the clearer it becomes that he’s toying with the very nature of what a “foreign film” can—or should—be.
Because, imagine if there was no initial warning, and you were left to wander unknowingly into the near-silent wilds of this bleak film. Chances are, you’d wait fervently for a translation to surface, for someone to say something, for any sign that you actually have the right copy of the film, not some bootleg version that’s mistakenly missing those crucial sentences at the bottom of the screen. In the same way that reading subtitles can often be a distraction from the experience of watching a foreign film, so then is looking for subtitles to read. Slaboshpytskiy does away with all of that—instead the audience is encouraged to submit to and engage with The Tribe’s visual language, to become caught up in its rhythm and somnambulant pace. The title card that tells us we will find no linguistic road signs to follow is the film’s first hypnotic suggestion, the rest of the The Tribe lulling us into a kind of pliable trance.
This Slaboshpytskiy accomplishes in long takes and meticulously composed frames. The Tribe observes its events from a distance, letting tension build and linger with little payoff but the relief of moving to a new scene. Though it speaks to big themes of love, maturity, violence and classism, its story is deceptively simple: Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko), an eager and unquestioning teen with a 10,000-yard stare, transfers to a boarding school for the deaf. There he encounters a world of robbery and prostitution facilitated by a nauseating deal between the oldest students at the school and select members of faculty. At first, due to his brutish strength and emotionless ability to do what he’s told, Sergey acclimates well to life as a tribal thug. Soon, though, he falls in love with Anna (Yana Novikova), one of the school’s two prostitutes who turns tricks at a local truck stop. Anna seems to develop a mutual fondness for Sergey, but she’s got bigger goals in mind, namely getting as far away from the school as she can. When Sergey finds out she’s leaving, his more animalistic tendencies surface, and things quickly fall apart. Love was never meant to exist in a world such as this, and so, after he’s punished repeatedly for his feelings, Sergey cuts a swathe of chaos through the corrupt campus. He doesn’t so much pull apart its power structure as hasten its descent into annihilation.
Little surprise, then, that many of these long takes devolve into harrowing madness: surreal bureaucracy, beatings, apoplectic rage, pain, rape—all unfolding under the unfeeling leer of Slaboshpytskiy’s unwavering eye. The Tribe would be a nihilistic film if it wasn’t so seething, its wandering narrative open to moments where nothing much happens besides a bunch of mean-mugging teens walking from one dilapidated building to another, or through a playground no longer safe for children, or into the back room of a nondescript tenement for a barely sanitary abortion procedure. And yet, in such moments, Slaboshpytskiy and cinematographer/editor Valentyn Vasyanovych create a feeling of unbridled space, allowing the details of the seemingly post-apocalyptic environment—graffiti being the film’s only legible form of language—to catch the eye, then recede behind an endless veneer of decay. The irony in this, of course, is that for all of the surface area these characters control, it rarely deviates from a sort of boring, abandoned hellscape—the camera weaves carefully between rows and rows of trucks full of pederasts, say, or down somber, blue hallways lined with swinging doors behind which children with burgeoning criminal records slumber. Rarely do they pause to confront the fact that the kingdom they’re so proud to rule will never last.
The details of these kids’ lives—emphasized by the total lack of reasonable adult supervision, save for the film’s opening vignettes—toes the line between gritty and exploitive, especially during a scene in which the only two girls in the film gleefully accept the “gifts” of staff members who are in on the whole prostitution set-up. The Tribe undoubtedly slips into tawdriness, but regardless of its total lack of levity, it contains images that refuse to be forgotten: The aforementioned backroom abortion sequence, for example, is as excruciating as it is unflinching. Heightened by sound design that can only be described as sumptuous, the film hardly expects an audience to believe that this is what every “realistic” abortion is like—or that these characters inhabit a “real” world for that matter. The scene only exists to obliterate.
The Tribe in total is much like that scene. A band of marauders, the film scorches your cerebral terrain and salts the earth, unwilling to let much of anything flourish there afterwards. It’s a claustrophobically quiet two hours, sure, but dear god is it angry: It holds out no hope for kids like this—no chance to escape their lots in life—just violence and ruin. It only seeks to communicate, as plainly as it can, the desperation of life lived on the fringes, and that it does so without language is The Tribe’s truest success. Gorgeous and guileless, the film will undoubtedly destroy you. Whether that’s something you’ll enjoy or not, go ahead: Try to talk about it afterwards—you may find the right words are missing.
Director: Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy
Writer: Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy
Starring: Grigoriy Fesenko, Yana Novikova, Roza Babiy, Alexander Osadchiy, Alexander Panivan
Release Date: June 17, 2015 (NY); June 25, 2015 (LA); June 27, 2015 (select cities)
Dom Sinacola is Assistant Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. Since he grew up in the Detroit area, it is required by law that his favorite movie is Robocop. You can follow him on Twitter.