Of all the hyperbolic phrases in the film critic’s toolkit, “a singular experience” is one that gets thrown around a bit too much, diluting the cinematic pool. But I can safely say, with unequivocal authority, that you have never experienced anything like Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s The Tribe.
The film, set in a Ukrainian boarding school for the deaf, unfolds entirely in sign language, with no subtitles or spoken dialogue, voiceover or otherwise. With no choice but to surrender yourself to the images, The Tribe tells the story of Sergey (Fesenko), a transfer student who arrives at the school, reticent and naive. But he doesn’t remain that way for long, as he is immediately hazed and indoctrinated into a gang run by elite students and corrupt teachers who pimp out female students at truck stops and mug hapless citizens of their money and goods. As Sergey rises up the ranks in these criminal enterprises, he becomes smitten with a fellow student, Anna (Novikova), and his attempt to free her from the clutches of prostituting herself drives the second half of the film.
As a first feature, The Tribe astonishes with its formal beauty. The Steadicam work by Valentyn Vasyanovych is breathtaking. Every scene is a single, long take, and the way the film follows the rhythms of the teenager’s everyday life is hypnotizing. All sound is diegetic, a van’s engine humming away while the girls prowl the truck stop cleverly juxtaposes the lack of connection to sound that these characters have. Oh, and did I mention that the majority of actors in this film are nonprofessionals? The Tribe investigates a hidden world, a marginalized subculture that is sometimes confounding, but endlessly exhilarating. It hearkens back to silent films from a century ago, while also feeling like the future of cinema. Uncompromising and supremely controlled, it is a demanding film that will leave you shaken and shattered. How’s that for hyperbolic?
A version of this review ran as part of the Chronicle’s Fantastic Fest coverage. For an interview with Yana Novikova, see “Bad Education,” July 10.
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