Discussion of sensational new Ukrainian film The Tribe (2014), which premièred at Cannes to rave reviews earlier this year, is best begun the way that director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky chooses to open it. Lettering appears on screen providing a warning that what follows will be film free from dialogue, subtitles, and voiceover – occurring entirely in sign language. To claim that this is a bold move is an understatement, as would be the assertion that the filmmakers have risen to the challenge. What they have crafted is unlike anything else you’ll see in the movie theatres this year; a muscular and disturbing masterpiece of wordless cinema and an audaciously constructed exemplar of the poetry of motion.
Made up of a series of meticulously choreographed long takes, the narrative is surprisingly easy to follow and sees teenager Sergey (Grigory Fesenko) arriving at a boarding school for deaf signers for the first time. As he makes the long trudge up the driveway, the camera assumes the trademark social realist position behind his head before he disappears from screen and the shot lingers on an apparently joyous morning assembly. The veil falls immediately, however, as Sergey is introduced to the power players in the strict hierarchy of this brutal student society. Criminal rackets are run from the school ranging from robbery to prostitution and Sergey is soon inducted into the heart of the operation. The absence of dialogue shouldn’t be underestimated and the filmmakers do exceptionally well to convey their narrative.
The unique sensation of watching scenes that would usually contain vocal expression becomes eerily unsettling; watching a balletic fight, or a sex scene, in near silence is a thrillingly disarming experience. Where plot and character are the focus, the performances and the steady camera of Valentyn Vasyanovych do all the heavy lifting. Whilst the finer nuances of the sign language will be lost to most audiences, it’s always clear what’s going on not least through the wonderfully suggestive work by the young cast. Body language, emphasis,or the speed of an exchange soon become quick to comprehend – there’s one scene in which two girls argue at a pace that would make Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell go pale. That the plot – an allegory for an abandoned Ukraine left to fight tooth and nail for their survival – follows a fairly conventional path matters not.
It’s the very manner of the directorial execution and the resulting power of them that will rightly have jaws dropping, with Vasyanovych’s precision camerawork staggering at every turn, pan, and track. Single shots glide in and out of buildings capturing frames that will linger in the memory and compound the already kinetic energy of this remarkable piece. Slaboshpitsky’s The Tribe is gripping, tour de force cinema from its opening jab, and from there it continually forces you against the ropes before delivering a knockout punch with a gut-wrenching conclusion destined to leave audiences stunned.
The Tribe featured in CineVue’s ‘Best films of 2014’ feature. You can read the full list here