What exactly would constitute a modern-day silent film, I’m not quite sure, but Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s “The Tribe” must come close. Following students at a deaf boarding school in Ukraine, there is no dialogue or subtitles in the film, just frantic sign language. Slaboshpitsky’s approach is cruel and unforgiving to the viewer, yet it pales in comparison to the events that unfold on screen.
The film begins with the arrival of Sergei (a mercilessly physical Grigoriy Fesenko), whose name isn’t given. No information is given either. Like the character, the viewer is thrown into the school, which is marked by starkly dated, rundown construction ruled by a group of harassing boys dressed in dark suits. The setup is playful and pointed for the film’s main thesis: remove sound and notice everything else.
A blonde student sits slouched in a classroom as Sergei walks in, eyeing him. His teacher does the customary introduction. He hears teasing and whispering. It’s a familiar scenario, but it’s spoken purely through body language. Each character is framed to complement their build, using the human structure as expressive brilliance.
Later, the boys, who quickly sweep up Sergei, stomp around the schoolyard wasteland, their thinly-veiled violence brimming to the surface. Valentyn Vasyanovych, whose name is almost as poetic as his camerawork, shoots these sequences, and the rest of “The Tribe” for that matter, with beautiful, swooping long takes. At times the camera moves rapidly, at other times it rests, each extended shot having a purpose, telling a story that disregards nuances in favor of raw emotion.
It’s at the depths of humanity where “The Tribe” truly leaves a mark. The initial shenanigans by the suit-clad gang stops being amusing when Sergei is forced to strip, possibly to check for affiliated tattoos, though it’s never explained. Things escalate when a few of the boys wake in the night, taking two girls out in a van. It becomes clear, as fishnet stockings and stilettos are adorned by the girls, that employing prostitutes is a pastime for these teenagers, and it is shown to gratuitous extent.
It’s this gratuity that “The Tribe” toys with, walking a tightrope between ingenuity and torturous viewing. Sergei ends up as a pimp, falls in love with one of the girls (Yana Novikova, who is impossibly resilient), and suffering appears everywhere. Sex is equated to pure violence, depicted as loud, seemingly awful and wholly corporeal. Muggings and beatings become a mainstay and fists pounding flesh becomes the only drumbeat to a movie, and a universe, without music.
As the film wears on, and events escalate, Slaboshpitsky, who wrote and directed the film, slips. At first, the lack of information made for fantastic viewing, causing for a detective-like experience. Yet the unknowing prevents any attachment to a character or any moral delivery, particularly in the face of oppressive, nauseating violence and abuse. “The Tribe” stops being smart; instead it’s just masochism.
“The Tribe” is currently available on VOD platforms including Amazon and iTunes.
Email Ethan Sapienza at [email protected]