The Wife often mocks my taste in obscure or challenging foreign cinema, like the “Romanian abortion movie” and the “Icelandic penis movie”. So I was looking forward to regaling her about the “Ukrainian deaf movie” The Tribe, which sparked much notice at the Toronto and Sundance film fests. Indeed, The Tribe is a singular cinematic experience – both absorbing and exhausting.
Right away, the movie tells us that, although the The Tribe comes from Ukraine, we’re not going to hear any Ukrainian. Nor will we see any English subtitles. It’s set in a residential high school for the deaf, and the entire movie is in sign language. It’s novel for the hearing to experience an entire movie in which we hear only the sound of ambient noises – footsteps, creaking doors and the like – and we know that these sounds are NOT heard by the movie characters.
Writer-director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky also employs fixed-camera shots of very, very long duration. which enhance the feeling that we’re watching something that we haven’t seen before.
At first, The Tribe delivers what we might expect in a teen coming of age film: the new kid in school, practical jokes and high jinks, the boring classroom, the class clown and raging teen hormones. The kids sneak off campus at night to prowl and party. But soon we are shocked to realize that we’re not seeing normal teen rowdiness and delinquency – these kids are operating an organized crime ring!
The Tribe is clearly meant to be a comment on the profoundly rooted corruption of post-Soviet society. Unfortunately, Slaboshpitsky piles on so much horrible behavior and brutality that it becomes distracting. There’s even an unsparing clinical depiction of a back alley abortion in real time; at my screening, I could feel the entire audience, at first frozen and then squirming in our seats. It’s a very unpleasant scene – and meant to be. And after the extreme violence at the very end of the movie, the audience exited with nervous laughter at having endured it.
Two final warnings: Women viewers should be prepared for the squat toilets in the the public restroom – not exactly a travelogue high point for Ukraine. And THIS IS NOT A DATE MOVIE – despite lots of explicit sex, no one is going to want to have sex after watching this!
[SPOILER ALERT – The ending is both a cinematic achievement and barely watchable: all in one camera shot, the protagonist climbs five flights of stairs and commits four individual up-close-and-personal and especially brutal murders.]