The logline alone commands the attention: a Ukrainian drama, told entirely in sign language, without music or even subtitles. That it deals with the lawlessness lurking beneath the surface of a school for the deaf makes it essentially another troubled-youth film with the by-now expected sex and violence on top of the corrupted-innocence storyline. So we have, essentially, a very old story told in a very new way.
And, almost despite itself, it more or less works. The stylistic choices make the story hard to follow at times, and the ugliness on display will certainly push many viewers away. But despite all this, once I adjusted to The Tribe‘s rhythms, I found myself thoroughly compelled. Even as I recognized the predictable elements of the story and questioned its logic, my attention was held to the very end. It’s not a great film, but the form, courtesy of director Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi, greatly elevates the content.
Spoilers; TW sexuality, sexual assault, violence, abortion, ableism, etc.
As noted, the stylistic choices of The Tribe make the story rather obscure at times. Character names are not mentioned until the very end, and I’ll do my best to correctly identify them (Wikipedia was most helpful in linking character and actor names).
Sergei (Grigoriy Fesenko) is a new student at a Ukrainian school for the deaf. A gang led by the King (Oleksandr Osadchyi) operates out of the school, seemingly with impunity; at least one member of the staff (Oleksandr Panivan, I believe) is complicit in their operations, which include muggings, prostitution (Anya (Yana Novikova) and Svetka (Roza Babiy) are pimped out to truckers), and the contraband transport of small stuffed animals, though whether these are used to hide drugs or are just sold to tourists is unclear.
Sergei falls in with the gang, though their aggressive tactics give him little choice. At first he is the butt of their abuse, being forced to change rooms, possibly being tricked into drinking ipecac (he drinks something and starts puking), and getting pushed around, especially in a strange scene which may be a fight staged for the amusement of their friends, or may be the real thing (the staging is very bizarre).
But over time, he is drawn deeper into their clutches, and his role in their operations increases when one of them is crushed by a truck. He takes over the role of pander, and in the process becomes fond of Anya, leading them to have sex; at first, joylessly and mechanically, but as the scene progresses, some kind of emotional connection develops. Meanwhile, she and Svetka apply for passports and/or Italian visas, and Sergei becomes increasingly possessive, trying to prevent her from engaging in further prostitution.
Anya becomes pregnant, and goes to a black-market abortionist; whether or not the child is Sergei’s is unclear. When she finally gets her passport/visa, Sergei steals it and tears it apart, leading to a severe beating which ends with him being left for dead. That night, he returns to the school and beats the leaders of the gang to death.
Obviously a grim affair, while The Tribe has garnered generally strong reviews, a few (especially Scout Tafoya for RogerEbert.com) have condemned it for its ugliness and considered the use of sign language a gimmick. While I can’t really deny that the characters’ deafness has only an occasional bearing on the story (Sergei’s final rampage would be impossible if anyone could hear him), I don’t think their disability is exploited, and given the paucity of sign-language films, I’m certainly not anxious to diminish its value as a near-singular film (aside from Deafula, of course).
I can’t argue too much with those who will find the focus on depravity and exploitation tiresome; such miseries have become cliché in art-house cinema, and too few filmmakers can truly elevate such material into great cinema. Lars von Trier comes to mind, but his films have always balanced darkness with well-developed characters, good acting, and an idiosyncratic sense of humor. Films like White God and Borgman lack the depth to transcend their bleakness, and at times, I feared The Tribe would not, either.
And in one sense, it doesn’t. The decision to leave the signing unsubtitled and to keep much of the action in medium or long shots makes traditional identification with the characters difficult, and Sergei isn’t exactly a tragic hero; he’s kind of a schmuck, quite easily (as Tafoya points out) drawn into the gang, and later childishly possessive of Anya, leading him to an act of revenge straight out of a sick daydream. (I actually wondered if the final scene was meant to be a dying fantasy or some such invention, but there’s no real evidence to suggest it.) Early in the film, he seems sympathetic to a developmentally disabled student; later in the film, forced to room with that student, he assaults him in anger.
And one wonders just how the gang is able to get away with so much. Yes, at least one member of the staff is complicit in the gang’s crimes (though he may or may not be beaten by Sergei at the end; doubling as the shop teacher, he’s beaten (and maybe killed) by a mallet Sergei made in his class), but that the students can sneak out night after night, commit so many crimes (especially the muggings), and even take train trips on which they conduct further illicit business, all without getting caught, stretches one’s credulity rather far. If Slaboshpytskyi meant to create a parable about the sickness in Ukrainian society (especially in the wake of its recent troubles), then at least he created a more distinctive and memorable one than the rather leaden and unsurprising Leviathan. The generally dilapidated air of the buildings, and the rusted-out car by the road in the opening shot, all hint that this may have been the intent. (Here’s an article which delves into Slaboshpytskyi’s influences and intentions–which were not overtly political, apparently.)
It’s really almost in spite of itself that the film manages to be so compelling. Slaboshpytskyi’s direction is a major part of that. The film is mostly shot in a series of long takes, with camerawork that alternately flows gracefully, following the characters up and down stairs, across cityscapes, from inside to out, and stays put, simply drinking in the goings-on with an objective eye. Much kudos is due to cinematographer and editor Valentyn Vasyanovych; despite the 130-minute running time and detached style, the film is rarely dull.
And, despite their behavior, there are moments of sympathy and empathy to be found here; when Anya aborts her child, the very crudeness of the operation and the cavalier attitude of the abortionist make her plight all the more affecting. (She’s put in stirrups which consist of a rope which hooks her feet and goes, presumably painfully, around her neck.) Anya is easily the most sympathetic character in the film, in fact, and that her briefly promising relationship with Sergei ends because of his possessive arrogance is painful. (Their sex scenes are unsentimental, but you see how they have found some kind of connection–some kind of warmth–in an otherwise unhappy world.)
There’s a strange scene where the complicit faculty/staff member and an apparent ambassador to Italy meet in the former’s office, the ambassador gives the staff member gifts of cheese, wine, sausage, and an “I ♥ Italy” cap, and Anya and Svetka, accompanied by a young man (I don’t think it’s Sergei; there’s another character who looks somewhat like him.) arrive, receive gifts of kitschy T-shirts from the ambassador, and all toast (with grappa, perhaps, or vodka) and eat cheese. It’s a moment of communion and happiness with an undercurrent of gross corruption.
The use of sound is interesting, though not quite as experimental as I hoped. The film at times plays with sounds that the hearing members of the audience can perceive, but the characters cannot: when the student is hit by the truck, we hear it beeping as it reverses before he feels it strike him; when Sergei comes into Anya and Svetka’s room at night and forces himself on Anya, we know Svetka cannot hear the sound being made; and as noted before, when Sergei beats the members of the gang to death, it is the deafness of those present that allows him to get away with it. And early in the film, we see a student assembly which features a young girl ringing a bell, which presumably no one can hear.
The acting is mostly quite adequate; Fesenko’s performance could have been a little more dynamic, but the issue might be more with the writing than his performance. Novikova, however, is quite good as Anya; the character endures some harrowing moments, and Novikova communicates her energy, defiance, and pain powerfully. The rest of the cast give effective, understated performances, though it’s a little too easy to spot the bad guys early one.
I wasn’t sure what score I would end up giving The Tribe as I sat down to it; looking back on it, it fits in the lower half of my **** range, a very well-done film which doesn’t make it to greatness, but is strong enough to be worth seeing. It’s certainly not going to work for everyone, and I hope this review has been helpful in determining whether or not this is your cup of tea. For me, it’s probably a one-time deal, but I’m glad I went.