Cast: Grygoriy Fesenk, Yana Novikova, Roza Babiy, Oleksandr Osadchyi
Director: Myroslav Slaboshpitsky
Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
If you strip away the breathless fluid Steadicam camerawork, visually arresting tableaus and high-concept notion of filming an entire film with deaf actors using sign language without subtitles, then director Myroslav Slaboshpitsky's The Tribe would qualify as a exploitation B-movie traveling well-worn territory. However, since these aforementioned qualifiers means that audiences will be challenged, and perhaps even baffled, by the filmmaker's decision to plunge into a vision of deaf school hell, it's reasonable to assume that many will find the whole thing a bold cinematic experiment. The truth, though, is much simpler than the difficulties of understanding (or not understanding) the rhythms and cadences of sign language. The truth, in Slaboshpitsky's ugly, cruel, and rather pointless excuse for a movie, is that these characters aren't real people with motivations, emotions, and interior lives. Rather, the hearing-impaired actors are used mostly as props for the filmmaker's very specific brand of art-house miserablism. Basically, Slaboshpitsky uses his considerable cinematic style and that central gimmick as a means of wallowing in the detestable side of human nature without every once extrapolating a conceivable reason for it.
The skeletal plot revolves around a young student named Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko) who arrives at his new school and is quickly plunged into the criminal underworld. There's a roving pack of cigarette-smoking, leather jacket-wearing male punks who are fond of mugging and beating innocent bystanders, as well as teenage girls used as prostitutes for visiting truck drivers. Of course, one of the girls strikes Sergey's fancy, even as she initially balks at his apparent advances. Cue some laughably unconvincing school yard skirmishes in which Sergey proves his worth, and a series of debt-collecting acts of violence in service of the school's mob-like kingpin (Alexander Osadchiy). Much of the film plays out in a series of tracking Steadicam shots following various characters around the outskirts of the school, or in locked-down static tableaus where hearing-impaired people do despicable things. In terms of visual competence, there's no denying Slaboshpitsky's skills behind the camera. There's a stark beauty to the cinematography, even as it seems to linger on particular events mainly to rub the audience's noses in the depravity, that gives the film a certain watchability. Given that the entire film uses sign language sans subtitles, it's also remarkable that what's happening from moment to moment is never entirely confusing. The reason for this, though, seems to be due to the fact that the story being told here--a disenfranchised young kid thrown into a world of crime which leads to the inevitable downward spiral--is pretty standard stuff.
Many will praise The Tribe for challenging the way we look at the film watching experience, moving us further into a kind of intuitive viewing where language barriers can be broken down through behavioral short-hand. However, Slaboshpitsky's visual aesthetic, no matter how impressive, cannot wash over his deficiencies as a screenwriter. There's no sense of any of these character's day-to-day existences outside of wandering around the school like existential monsters. There is a scene or two set inside classrooms, but the lack of adult supervision, not to mention police involvement as horrendous crimes are committed on a daily basis, is galling. Some may claim the film is simply revealing a sub-culture without making any apologies for the inherent moral corruption that springs from it, but nothing that occurs here seems to have any basis in reality, and this has nothing to do with being an outsider peering in on deaf culture. In fact, it seems reasonable that many hearing-impaired would find this depiction downright offensive, seeing as it presents hollow two-dimensional ciphers whose behavior stems from screenwriting constructs rather than relatable human behavior.
After a while, countless scenes of degradation only reinforces Slaboshpitsky's glib attitude towards his characters. The effect of seeing monotonous sex, brutal beatings, rape, and a grisly sequence involving a back-alley abortion, without an emotional component from the individuals onscreen means that such acts become boring rather than shocking. When things dovetail into blood-splattering violence during the climax, the effect is similar to that of Slaboshpitsky's roving camera; complete and utter detachment. The arc of Sergey is predictable to a fault, and even though the film is clearly going for something more mood-based and visceral, it's faux-arty bleakness feels like more of a put-on than something organically edgy. Even in a near apocalyptic wasteland like the Ukraine, The Tribe feels like it's taking place on another planet, and more crucially, the deaf community deserve a film that both reaffirms their individuality as well as makes their actions, even if they are at times wretched, justifiable.