For those who are intrigued by director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s self-professed love of silent cinema, The Tribe (2015) is both a delightful experience—paying homage to that earlier form of cinematic expression—and a shocking display of frank sexuality and brutality on a scale that many silent film fans may not relate to. The Tribe makes no allowances for the audience, telling its story exclusively through facial expressions and Ukrainian sign language, without the aid of subtitles. Instead, it features an impressive cast of young and talented actors who command the viewer’s attention as they negotiate the cut-throat world of a Ukrainian high school for the deaf.
When Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko) arrives at his new boarding school, he quickly understands that he must prove himself if he wants to survive. The opening sections of the film resemble earlier gangster-film precedents, as Sergey tries to demonstrate his worth to the leader of the school’s major gang, which controls everything and routinely deals in drugs, prostitution, and robbery. Despite being clearly inspired by iconic silent gangster films, such as The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) or Little Caesar (1930), and containing a few scenes reminiscent of the perfectly orchestrated silent heist of Rififi (1955), The Tribe departs from a routine gangster film and enters much darker and more explosive territories.
The path leading to a series of destructive events occurs shortly after Sergey has integrated himself within “the tribe” when he falls in love with one of their prostitutes named Anya (Yana Novikova). Despite the fact that viewers are aligned with Sergey for the entirety of the film—that is, he is featured in the vast majority of scenes and for the most part the camera follows and remains close to him—it is hard to develop a sense of allegiance to him. At first one might be tempted to view Sergey as sympathetic because he is thrust into a new, unknown, and dangerous situation, but the way that he handles himself is certainly not rational—even for a young person in love. Sergey’s transformation from proving himself by partaking in the more mundane of the gang’s operations to his volatile emotional state and actions at the end of the film is considerable. Indeed after Sergey falls in love with Anya things amplify quickly and his actions become less and less justifiable.In many films featuring “anti-heroes,” this kind of tension is often relieved by the fact that all of the other characters are even more morally questionable, and thus the behavior of the anti-hero becomes relatively acceptable. In a case like The Tribe, however, it is difficult to argue in favor of Sergey above the other characters, even when considering the gang’s leader (played by Alexander Osadchiy) who is a downright terrible person: he exploits others at every turn and is obviously smug about it in the process.
In contrast to the ugly actions of its characters, The Tribe is visually beautiful. There are some breathtaking uses of deep focus and complex compositions reminiscent of the work of Michael Haneke. Unlike Haneke, however, Slaboshpytskiy and his director of photography Valentyn Vasyanovych favor a somewhat more fluid and mobile camera which underlines the expressivity of the sign language and facial expressions of the characters. Although the camera tends to track alongside the characters as they move—for example, in the scene when the gang robs a man of his groceries—there are other moments when it simply lingers on the action and lets the savage acts speak for themselves. While some might argue that towards the end of the film this is done too frequently, the filmmakers never romanticize violence in The Tribe, instead portraying it with a frankness that acts as a vicious—and at times uncomfortable—degree of realism.
The Tribe is a straightforward and brutal film, but, despite not containing any spoken dialogue, it is also beautiful in its deep expressivity. While it is difficult or impossible to justify the protagonist’s actions, which makes it hard to engage with him, this is certainly a film that takes hold of the viewer’s attention. The Tribe should be commended for challenging some of the conventions of contemporary filmmaking. It tells a story that can be seen and understood in the same state all over the world, without recourse for subtitles or dubs. This in itself is quite an achievement and can be thought of as a powerful experiment with the universal language of film.