Well, who needs dialogue, anyway? Just look at Shaun the Sheep Movie. You might need to look at Shaun the Sheep Movie in order to feel better after looking at The Tribe. It is one thing to make a two-hour film full of teenage non-professionals who communicate entirely in un-translated sign language. (No subtitles, no voiceover, no apologies.) It’s another to do it as a deliberately distancing, semi-nihilistic provocation. But The Tribe hails from Ukraine, where nowadays there’s a sense that at least when it comes to making wordless movies, light comedy really won’t cut it.
Writer-director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s audacious, astonishing film follows the new student (Grigoriy Fesenko) at a boarding school for deaf teenagers. Naturally this lad has some social adjustment to contend with, and there is a girl he likes (Yana Novikova), but things are complicated. Being deaf isn’t too much of a problem, or at least not as much of one as being mostly unsupervised in a shabby, prison-like, post-Soviet hellhole. The school looks like a horror-movie asylum — or, even more unnervingly, like the real-life inspiration for one — and its students seem fated to behave accordingly. Extracurriculars here include grubby truck-stop prostitution, violent robbery, and mandatory brutal recruitment into the presiding gang of pimps and thieves. So yes, things are complicated, in pretty much the worst ways you can imagine. Who needs dialogue when we have the universal language of violence, and sex — and, of course, sexual violence?
Does that question sound glib? However cynically, Slaboshpitsky might well be asking it in earnest. Going without translation is a brave move — although it should be said that commonplace story development can seem like a different kind of crutch — and as an exercise, at least, The Tribe is magnificent. It transpires in an impressively flowing choreography of long widescreen takes and subtly orchestrated sound design. Closeups and other means of identification are rare (to even learn the characters’ names, we must wait for the closing credits), but details of the environment are exacting: a rotting car husk on a busy roadside, angry graffiti on just about every outdoor wall, melancholic gray-white daylight hanging over everything. Here, wordless communication is miraculous one moment, sorely inadequate the next, just as hearing impairment itself is by turns insulating and imperiling. And anytime any of Slaboshpitsky’s hapless marionettes grasps something resembling hope, the others seem reflexively to yank it away.
It’s probably safe, if depressing as hell, to see this as a vision of today’s Ukraine — a glumly institutional yet lawless place, full of untempered adolescent urges and literally unspoken rules, as primally self-enclosing as the film’s title implies. But it also might be a rebuff to attention-addled movie audiences in general, or to those who avoid foreign films out of hostility to reading subtitles. Slaboshpitsky has said he’d long wanted to try a modern silent film, but only with a real reason for people not to talk. Describing The Tribe’s reception in other countries, he’s also said that in France the sex was ok but the violence was a problem, whereas in America the violence was ok, but the sex was a problem. So, an arthouse attention-getter, perhaps, but one that’s universally comprehensible. It’s by design that anything we might say about this film, in any language, feels like filling a void of stunned silence.