The Ukrainian film The Tribe by director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky may be the first of its kind: a film whose dialogue consists entirely of sign language. It has no subtitles, no voiceover and no dialogue. Which means half the time you don’t really know what’s being said, but you still get pretty much everything that matters. This is what you might call a kind of “pure” cinema, it expresses itself purely through visuals and sound effects. It also consists of a series of long takes. Each scene is one take, with the camera often tracking through a great length.
The film’s protagonist is a teenage boy whose name we never learn who just started at a boarding school for deaf kids. We see him enter the school and immediately on the first day he gets kicked out of his room by his roommates and has to sleep in the hallway. This is no ordinary school and this boy has entered a world that turns out to be truly brutal. These deaf kids are not what probably many people think of deaf people, as sweet and innocent people. These kids beat each other up for fun as well as beating up innocent pedestrians and robbing them. They also sell themselves for prostitution. The protagonist eventually manages to become a part of this “tribe” and quickly gets into their way of life.
The Tribe is a fascinating experiment and for a while, it works very well. There’s something powerful about a movie like this with no dialogue, as it forces you to really pay attention and then grabs you with its raw brutality. The first hour or so is truly gripping and much of it leaves you in awe.
But after a while it starts to lose a bit of its power. Things get repetitive and the ugliness becomes a bit too much. Pummeling the viewer with all that ugliness for a little over two hours can get a little wearying. And while most of the important information does come across there are some confusing scenes in the latter half whose purpose is never clear. It’s got something to do with getting fake passports and going to Italy but what it has to do with the rest of the film and why we had to see it all is never really clear so it just slows the movie down. You can see a small connection to the bigger story but it didn’t need two long scenes for that.
The lack of subtitles for the sign language isn’t really a huge problem for the most part but it still makes the movie a bit muddled and sometimes you feel like you’re missing a lot, it can be seen as both a flaw and an asset.
Still, The Tribe is ultimately a film that sticks with you long afterwards despite all its flaws. It’s something truly unique and unrelentingly brutal and gives you a glimpse into a world you had no idea about. Then again it may all be a load of bullshit, but when you never know when it comes to places like Ukraine. It’s a flawed but effective bit of cinema.
The Good: The staging and direction by Slaboshpitsky is incredibly impressive here, seamlessly drawing us into this world with his camera.
The Bad: This movie did not really need to go on for over two hours and there’s a little too much of what seems like pure filler in the second half. It also can get slightly annoying to not understand what exactly is being said.
The Ugly: Where to begin… (rape, murder, prostitution, graphic abortion scene, getting hit on the head with a hammer…).