The Sounds of Violence: THE TRIBE Film Review

By at July 23, 2015 | 12:00 pm | Print

4 / 5 stars

The Tribe Movie Poster -- LargeThe Tribe has the potential to be one of the most incendiary movies of 2015. It’s a little surprising that this multiple Cannes Film Festival award-winner hasn’t already inspired more vitriol, at least in the United States. Although the entire cast of The Tribe is deaf, and the entire film told only with sign language and body language (no subtitles), Ukrainian filmmaker Miroslav Slaboshpitsky has made a teen gang movie that’s uncomfortable, shocking and violent. As our national culture becomes increasingly more sensitive to the lives of the disabled and differently abled – even enthralled via reality TV – The Tribe empowers while it revolts.

It’s easy to accuse Slaboshpitsky of being irresponsible, even exploitative, for leveraging his young cast’s deafness to make a more viscerally powerful film. But The Tribe has a visual brilliance that transcends its genre regardless of anyone’s ability to hear or speak. Even more, what makes the film superior is that Slaboshpitsky treats his enormously daring actors as catalysts, not cattle.

It takes a little while to get used to the lack of aural energy. At times, it’s stifling to the senses. With no music and no rhythmic dialogue, Slaboshpitsky makes the decision to eschew editing – there are no interior cuts in any scene. If the director wants us to see something, he either moves his camera to get there or locks it down for minutes at a time. With limited “language” in the movie, Slaboshpitsky relies on a limited set of physical rules to tell his story.

Scene from The Tribe

It’s a story that begins innocently enough, until that innocence is extracted from its teenage characters forever. A high schooler named Sergey finds his way to his new boarding school, where deaf kids attend classes in rundown buildings, live in cramped dorm rooms, and follow a strict gang hierarchy. Sergey is quickly integrated into the flow after a fistfight initiation – it’s obvious he can take care of himself.

That early initiation rite is a fascinating transition into the world of The Tribe: Slaboshpitsky shoots the sequence in a fixed wide shot reminiscent of early 1900s films in which a dozen actors would silently perform on a “stage,” their acting the only kinetic motion on the screen. This is an eerie update to that style, the boys punching one another while a crowd of deaf kids gesture and “cheer.” There’s no real depth of field, so we’re free to visually roam the frame, and have plenty of time to do so. The quiet of the participants and the natural sounds create a strange on-screen aesthetic that’s wholly original.

This would’ve been difficult, if not impossible, to achieve believably if the characters weren’t deaf. But what about the far harsher situations the characters and, in turn, the actors are placed in? Prostitution, unflinching sex, robbery, abortion… Slaboshpitsky has made these kids angry, heartless opportunists. It’s helpful to know he had wanted to consider a story about the “deaf mafia,” which he called “very special in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus,” in a recent interview.

The haters (and there are few) may overlook that interest and resent the director’s choices. But Slaboshpitsky has made an enormously unique movie that forces viewers to see deaf people as anyone else – actors who live up to some difficult acting challenges, and scheming characters possessing a true potential for evil.

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