Even if it ends up doing little more than jostling memories of better movies by Chantal Akerman or Gaspar Noé, Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s The Tribe should be seen for the sheer magisterial skill of its coordinated filmmaking. The narrative arc follows Sergey (Grigory Fesenko), a new student at a boarding school for deaf-mute teenagers in Ukraine. Slaboshpytskiy’s camera floats behind him as he’s inducted nto his listless classmates’ micro-rituals and lives of petty crime one precarious baby step at a time, kicking off with a humiliating hazing that sees him crashing into the dorm room of two female classmates (who, the film reveals, moonlight as prostitutes for a couple of teachers), instantly begged off and slapped around in fiery, mile-a-minute sign language. The violence isn’t just a consequence of the characters’ decisions, but a way of life—a vernacular unto itself.
Not an undue amount of The Tribe’s festival buzz hinges on Slaboshpytskiy’s undeniable gift for smooth, diorama-like tableaux that take on the dramatic weight of real time as his camera refuses to cut elsewhere, or the muffled sound of footsteps and whispers that form the characters’ non-dialogues. A truck backs into a deaf person and continues to quietly back over them, the driver completely unaware. People are hit over the head with bricks, jumped, pried open, flung down, tantalized, smothered, raped—and the camera lingers to catch all of it. For every layer of callousness exhibited by the school’s ensemble, there’s another to be discovered beneath—like when Sergey, dismissed from a party in the boys’ dorm with a whack in the face, retreats to the empty room to take out his pent-up frustrations on his sobbing, autistic roommate. These cruelties are blanketed by the eternal silence that accompanies both perpetrators and victims, with occasional gestures to the outside world: awkward tourist tees from Italy, or a long line for a travelers’ visa that’ll never get stamped.
For all the tactility of its many depictions of sex and punishment, The Tribe coasts on an opaqueness of melodrama—but then again, the characters actually appear throughout to be in pretty fluent and dynamic communication with each other. If you don’t speak or understand Ukrainian sign language, you’re bound to ask why Slaboshpytsky chose not to include subtitles for his film’s 99.9% sign-language dialogue; would this choice be offensive if applied to other languages? Is sign not, in 2015, a real language? This decision has been called “high-concept,” but would perhaps be better dubbed “no subtitles.” To ask these questions is to realize The Tribe is probably heavier than it is deep, more interested in performance and symbolism than in the meaning of its characters’ words or their substitutive gestures.
All well and good for performance art, but it flattens the experience of watching the film’s inevitable, if unpleasant, downward-spiraling narrative trajectory. This is a story shown, but not “told”—and under scrutiny, it barely really qualifies as a story. Concessions to reality, like the amount of time it takes one of the aforementioned girls to recover from an abortion (rendered in—you guessed it—an excruciatingly long single take) turn the scales of Slaboshpytskiy’s vision and warp the film’s sense of moral proportion. Societal bonds—which were governed by money, fear and sex to begin with—break down, staged as if to make maximum hay from the moviegoer’s privileged, touristic position of paralysis. The shocking conclusion confirms that The Tribe’s deaf-mute tautology is a both a comment on and an example of reinforced audience powerlessness. But even while staring agog at the film’s elaborate panoramas of human cruelty, it’s not hard to miss how contrived it mostly is: miserablism without subtitles is still miserablism.