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'The Tribe' is a radical movie with no dialogue or even subtitles

A Ukrainian drama starring deaf actors communicating through sign language is grueling in more ways than one.
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    "The Tribe" focuses on a gang that runs a prostitution ring, among other offenses.|Drafthouse Films

‘The Tribe’
Director: Miroslav Slaboshpitsky
Stars:
Grigory Fesenko, Yana Novikova
Rating: NR
4 (out of 5) Globes

It’s not hyperbole to say the clinical Ukranian nightmare “The Tribe” is unlike any film ever made. It’s what they call that misleading, inaccurate term “pure cinema.” It has images and sounds but no words, neither printed nor said. The entire cast is deaf, and though they sign language up a storm, none of it is subtitled. (To put things in perspective, even F.W. Murnau’s “The Last Laugh,” a rare silent film with almost no intertitles, has one intertitle. This has zero.) There are sounds — including some witty plays with off-screen noises, such as ominously approaching footsteps — but some scenes unfold with the barest ambiance. The viewer is thus forced to do actual watching, not to let the mind drift to deciphering dialogue or to let the eyes zero in on words printed on the bottom of the screen. We stare head on, not given an excuse to look away, especially lest we miss one of the film’s sudden bursts of unspeakable horror.

Of course, you’re still using part of your attention to figure what’s going on. Plot in “The Tribe” isn’t always decipherable, and on purpose: The film, the debut feature of Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, wants to make us feel lost and out of control, much like (if nowhere near exactly like) its characters and actors. From what we can tell it deals with Sergey (Grigory Fesenko), a young man who shows up at what appears to be a school for the deaf, but may be something else entirely. (There’s one adult, who teaches woodshop, but even he seems nefarious.) Whatever it is, Sergey gets caught up with the bad kids, who aren’t just normal bad kids. They run a prostitution ring, and are prone to beatings and theft, in addition to their normal bullying duties.

“The Tribe” has a bit of “Dogtooth” thing going on, throwing us into an absurdist world with few bearings. It’s not as rigorous, in part because, unlike “Dogtooth,” whose world eventually makes sense, it doesn’t want every bit of it to be “solved.” Key parts of the story and setup remain cloudy, from what the institution is to how the gang operates to what exactly happens during the shocking climax. It aims to sweep you up anyway through camerawork, just as Sergey gets swept up in action that proves beyond his control. The shooting is pure “master shot” filmmaking: long takes filled with immaculately staged action (though often non-). Sometimes the shots stay still for minutes on end; other times it carries us through epic Steadicam business, trailing an actor or picking up someone else to follow mid-stream.

It’s part Jacques Tati, part Ulrich Seidl, the Russian maker of deeply unpleasant deadpan atrocities like “Import/Export,” where atrocities play out casually in front of an unmoving, unblinking camera. “The Tribe”’s big gambit is an epic abortion scene, though there’s also sex acts plus the occasional splash of ultraviolence that would jar Gaspar Noe. It doesn’t, ultimately, matter what specifically is happening in each scene. The general idea is to show a world in which everyone, at every turn, is either oppressor or oppressee, or both. Sergey is a doormat who’s so easy to walk over that he takes no joy in being caught up with the bad kids. He just goes through the motions of oppressing people, only perking up when he falls for one of their prostitutes (Yana Novikova). At one point even he takes out his frustration on someone else, namely the school’s Down Syndrome kid, as though he found the only person who would never, ever fight back. As inscrutable as “The Tribe” can, on purpose, be, its hellish vision of a microcosm fueled entirely by humankind at its most base and cruel couldn’t be more clear.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 

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