There’ve been a number of films I’ve found challenging to watch over the six years I’ve been writing about film—Amour, The Tree of Life, Only God Forgives, The Last Airbender. But I don’t think I’ve ever struggled with a film as much as I did with the Ukrainian crime drama The Tribe.
Presented entirely in Ukrainian sign language, with no translations, no subtitles, no voiceover, and only ambient noise as a guide, director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s debut feature is a visceral and one-of-a-kind motion picture that deserves to be seen on a large screen, mostly because watching it on any other platform would eliminate most of its impact. Even if you come in mentally ready, nothing will prepare you for the eerie experience of sitting in a theater full of people that remains silent for two hours. The Tribe demands that viewers use their eyes and imaginations to digest the story being projected using only the characters’ facial expressions as a guide. But what’s the point of a brilliant conceit and bravura filmmaking technique if there isn’t an interesting narrative or fleshed-out characters to back it up?
The plot is simple: A vagabond teenager (Grygoriy Fesenko) arrives at a boarding school for the deaf, with no background given about where he came from. Learning to acculturate into the school’s strange society in which professors and the administration are barely seen, the teen soon gets caught up with a gang of violent older students (all deaf) whose nighttime activities include thievery, violence against older citizens, smuggling drugs and running a prostitution ring. Passing their brutal initiation, he soon impresses the leaders of the group enough to be assigned as a pimp to two female students (Yana Novikova and Roza Babiy) who solicit sex from bored truck drivers on weeknights. But when he falls for one of the girls, he finds himself being alienated from the rest of the group.
With no dialogue or significant audio as a guide, Slaboshpytskiy relies solely on his raw filmmaking skill and non-professional cast to tell his story. On the technical front, he more than proves his worth by incorporating numerous tracking and static shots (many lasting well over a minute). But although these organic extended takes are stylish, and often stunning to look at, Slaboshpytskiy’s insistence on long shots over medium or close-ups mean he’s more interested in instilling a sense of isolation in his audience rather than having them empathize or understand his characters.
Without strong or even interesting characters to hold his simple plot together, Slaboshpytskiy’s screenplay stalls, turning into an exercise in redundancy as we watch them go through the same beats over and over again. This becomes all the more evident when the novelty of sign language fades away 45 minutes into the picture. Things start spiraling even further once the filmmaker resorts to sensationalism and shock value to elicit a reaction from his audience. Among the on-screen atrocities we’re subjected to are a brutal rape, a series of gruesome murders and most disconcerting of all, a nearly 10-minute-long sequence at an illegal abortion clinic that serves no purpose to the plot, other than gratuitous and unnecessary shock-value. It’s a grotesque sequence that instantly reminded me of how delicately Romanian director Cristian Mungiu pulled off a similar harrowing scene in his masterful 2007 Palme d’Or-winning drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.
Simply put, The Tribe is an endurance test. Although it boasts a brilliant conceit and demonstrates the technical wizardry of its writer-director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, it severely tested my endurance with its languid pace, flat characters and gratuitous depictions of physical, sexual and emotional violence. It pummeling me for 128 straight minutes, and left me emotionally drained and in search of a strong drink.
Running time: 132 minutes
Companies: Drafthouse Films
Rating: NR (No Rating; but if it were rated, I’d expect either a hard R or an NC-17)
The Tribe is now playing at the Miami Beach Cinematheque in Miami, and at Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale. For showtimes and to buy tickets, click on each cinema’s respective link.