To condemn Ukrainian director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s debut feature The Tribe as being guilty of filmic gimmickry, as many have done since it first appeared on the 2014 festival circuit, is more a display of blind cynicism than bruising criticism. Starring an all-deaf cast who communicate through sign language, with no subtitles or vocal translation to aid the audience, Slaboshpytskiy’s film sets out to break the boundaries of visual dialogue, and reveals itself to be one of those rare & remarkable pieces of work that boldly defies cinematic convention.

Unable to build his film through spoken dialogue, Slaboshpytskiy relies solely on vision to construct his story. And even without realising it, we’re hooked from the opening shot. We meet Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko) at a bus stop, where he’s obviously asking for directions. In the background behind him we see a burnt out car, suggesting he may not be entering the most hospitable environment… and that would be right.

Sergey is asking for directions to his new boarding school, an institute that caters solely for deaf students. His body language is uncomfortable, his personality obviously impressionable, and as such Sergey soon finds himself pulled into a world of organised crime that’s run by a gang of vicious hoodlums who rule the school.

Essentially blending elements from Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Scorsese’s Mean Streets, Slaboshpytskiy crafts a classic narrative of a mobster’s rise & fall. As Sergey is drawn deeper into this felonious existence, he begins trying to prove himself by committing violent muggings & acting as pimp for two of the school’s female students Anna & Svetka (Yana Novikova & Rosa Babiy). However, having become infatuated with Anna, Sergey inadvertently breaks the unwritten rules of the Tribe’s hierarchy, and finds himself treading more dangerous waters.

Playing out his film as a series of lengthy Stedicam cam takes that are methodically shot with masterly precision by DoP Valentyn Vasyanovych, Slaboshpytskiy submerges his audience within a nightmarish world that’s inhospitably cold, and yet utterly compelling. What you see is hard to watch. A succession of brutally violent and intensely sexual sequences that graphically push the limits of contemporary film in ways that are occasionally exploitative (a scene involving a back-street abortion is gratuitously protracted), but also deeply affecting & impossible to look away from.

It’s the superb performances of the non-professional cast that truly hold your gaze though. Each performer is convincingly naturalistic, with a wealth of expressions & actions visibly utilised in order to help accentuate their character’s complex emotions. There may be no dialogue, but sound remains integral to the atmosphere, Slaboshpytskiy using angry grunts, exasperated shrieks and sighs of pleasure to extraordinary effect.

At just over 2hrs in length, some may find its chilling cruelty too much to bear, but those able to endure its ferocity are guaranteed to find The Tribe lingering long in their mind. That it invites multiple readings makes it all the more fascinating; the crumbling school, with its graffiti covered walls and grimy inner sanctum, could be seen as symbolic of Post-Soviet squalor, whilst Sergey’s story stands as an efficacious exposé of lost adolescence. Translated from within the silence, The Tribe goes to show that actions really can speak louder than words ever could.

Director: Miroslav Slaboshpitsky
Writer: Miroslav Slaboshpitsky
Stars: Grigoriy Fesenko, Yana Novikova, Rosa Babiy
Runtime: 132 mins
Country: Ukraine, Netherlands

Film Rating: ★★★★★★★★★☆

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