Most movies, even some of the greatest, encourage you to be passive. As intellectually stimulating or deeply moving or incredibly exciting as they might be, your role is to sit back and let it wash over you. When critics describe a film as “challenging,” it usually means a little work is required on your part—you may have to suss out a labyrinthine plot or decipher the motives of enigmatic characters. But even then, you’re usually met halfway: Pay even the bare minimum of attention, and you’ll be fine.
Among the many revelatory things about The Tribe is that this dark, acclaimed Ukrainian drama makes you realize from its first scene that those unspoken rules won’t be followed—thrillingly so. Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s feature debut is guided by a narrative conceit that could be a gimmick, but instead creates a remarkable new way of thinking about moviegoing. I’ve seen it twice now and been thoroughly absorbed both times: I don’t think I’ve ever noticed how quiet a screening was, how utterly engaged those around me were. This movie won’t let you sit back—instead, you lean forward, utterly involved in what you’re seeing.
At the onset, a title card announces that the entire film will be in sign language, with no subtitles, voiceover or music to accompany what we see. After that dire warning, we’re thrown into the story, meeting a deaf teenager (Grigoriy Fesenko) who’s never identified by name as he tries to make his way to his new school. (The end credits inform us that he’s Sergey.) Arriving at the boarding school, where apparently he knows no one, Sergey tries to find his place. Because this is a school for the deaf, there might be an expectation that the students will be more welcoming, but like any school, there are cliques for both the popular and the unpopular.
Soon, the sweet-natured new kid falls under the sway of a group of bullies who, after putting him through hazing rituals, reveal that they’re involved with some unsavory behavior outside the classroom. For one thing, they’ll mug innocent bystanders on the street or on passing trains. Also, they take part in an underground prostitution ring in which two willing female students are offered up to bored, horny truck drivers. Sergey is smitten with one of these clandestine hookers, Anna (Yana Novikova), and spends more time with her once he gets assigned to be their chaperone on these late-night excursions. And that’s when things go bad.
That’s just a rough estimation, though: Slaboshpitsky’s refusal to include voiceover or subtitles leaves certain things intriguingly vague. What we’re watching in The Tribe is a silent movie with no signposts, no helping hands. It’s remarkably easy to follow considering that fact, and yet there’s a fascinating sense of mystery, as though we can grasp what’s going on but not always decode all the nuances.
As a result, The Tribe, despite its dark heart and complete lack of touchy-feely sentimentality, is actually a forceful argument for respecting the complexities of other cultures we don’t understand. Neither a glib paean to those with disabilities nor a cruel exploitation of them for novelty’s sake—the cast is made up of deaf, non-professional actors—The Tribe is a constant reminder of all the worlds around us of which we’re ignorant. Slaboshpitsky has made an engrossing, thoroughly compelling story that’s shockingly accessible, but with enough that’s left unclear that the movie rewards multiple viewings. You’ll understand everything that happens in The Tribe—and why—but the richness of its milieu is such that you may want to revisit for a second immersion all the same.
That is, if you can handle its bleak tone. Shot with brilliant long takes—sometimes traveling from inside the boarding school to the playground outside, or from inside the back of a moving vehicle to the truck depot—The Tribe thrusts us so deeply into its world that it can be suffocating, especially when it becomes clear that Sergey has gotten mixed up with some tough characters. It’s not just the grungy decor of this rundown school that’s despairing; everywhere Slaboshpitsky looks, he sees moral rot, as even some of the teachers are complicit in the students’ illicit acts. This downbeat tone recalls the feel-bad atmosphere of Lars von Trier’s or Michael Haneke’s movies—with a similar penchant for out-of-nowhere provocation—but Fesenko’s melancholy presence becomes our emotional anchor.
Not knowing sign language, I found myself glued to Sergey’s face and eyes in a way I haven’t with any protagonist in a very long time. Because we always observe this world from the outside, we have to be more attentive to everything, and I discovered that I had a greater appreciation for how things are communicated between people than I would if I understood every word of dialogue. Slaboshpitsky’s characters sign back and forth, often emphatically, their hands and arms a blur of motion and passion. And although they don’t speak words, sounds come from their emphatic mouths, sometimes in synchronization with their hand motions. Also, they’ll grab the other person’s arm or poke them in the chest to get his or her attention—communication among the deaf is dependent on eye contact, which creates an intimacy between people that’s all the more potent for what happens in The Tribe. Many of Slaboshpitsky’s characters may be wicked, but the filmmaker illuminates their condition with such respect and clear curiosity that they end up being endlessly riveting anyway. He honors them by not making them angels.
There are a few scenes here that could be perceived as calculatedly upsetting or antagonistic. (Remind me not to go to Kiev for any medical procedures.) And a friend who knows sign language has pointed out that a crucial plot point isn’t realistic because it assumes something about the deaf that isn’t accurate. Those quibbles aside, The Tribe is an astounding achievement, one that reshapes our relationship with watching movies while telling an increasingly gripping and harrowing story. (It works the brain and the nervous system simultaneously.) It opens Wednesday in New York but will be expanding across the country for the rest of the summer; it’s “challenging,” all right, but in the very best of ways.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.