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Film Reviews The Tribe: No sound, just fury brings unsettling life to Ukraine’s ‘deaf mafia’

A smash success at Cannes, the stunning feature debut by Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy focuses on a gang of deaf-mute students whose extracurricular activities include robbery, prostitution and aggravated assault.

Filmswelike

4 out of 4 stars

Written by
Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy
Directed by
Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy
Starring
Grigoriy Fesenko, Yana Novikova, Alexander Osadchiy
Country
USA
Language
English

One of the most original debut films in recent memory, Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy's The Tribe is a gang drama set in a boarding school for the deaf. It features a non-professional cast of deaf and mute actors who are not given names, and is performed entirely in Ukrainian sign language without subtitles. Based on Slaboshpytskiy's experience as a crime reporter and on stories of Ukraine's "deaf Mafia," it's less a social portrait than an experiment in shaking up the balance of our senses: A tale of no sound, just fury.

The film's lack of audible speech puts viewers in the position of disoriented outsiders, struggling to find the clues. We're only slightly more lost than the film's teen protagonist, Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko). We first see him from across the street, handing a note to a woman at a Kiev bus stop as he seeks directions to his new boarding school.

Our initial bafflement gives way to a progressive sense of almost-comprehension. The Tribe has a deliberate, trance-like visual style: Long, carefully composed fixed shots that show groups of people interacting; equally long moving shots that follow the characters, often through corridors or gauntlets of other people. Along with Sergey, we begin to find our place, which is not in anyone's comfort zone.

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Essentially, this is a prison movie that happens to be set in a school. The pecking order is clear through the characters' gestures, facial expressions and body language. The snarling leader (Alexander Osadchiy) is obvious from the swagger, the forward thrust of his shoulders and angry, chopping gestures. Unlike other prisons, the inmates move freely in the neighbourhood, stealing possessions from train passengers and viciously mugging and beating men outside liquor stores. Their steady income comes from selling two girls as prostitutes at a local truck stop.

Sergey, after taking the required initiation beating, works his way up the chain of command to chief pimp for two girls, Anya (Yana Novikova) and Svetka (Rosa Babiy). The transactions are eerie, conducted by hand-written notes and exchanges of cash. His predecessor on the job dies in a startling fashion, though not surprising when you realize deaf people can't hear a truck's back-up signal.

While the initial impression is that adult supervision seems improbably light, we eventually understand why: The school administration is in on it. While a political allegory isn't obvious, the film was shot in early 2014, during the Maidan Square protests, which led to the ousting of Ukraine's pro-Russian government.

A shop teacher (Alexander Panivan), who collaborates with the boys on their pimping runs, arranges to get passports to send the girls to Italy. The problem is that Sergey, after buying a sexual bout with Anya (the sex positions are oddly sculptural, presumably reflecting his adoration), falls in love with her. He doesn't want her to leave, but having broken the Tribe's code, he becomes a pariah.

The Tribe is intended to unsettle, which it does so expertly it should come with a warning to the squeamish. Some of the violence is poetic: A gang fight in a park, where only the kicks, blows and laboured breathing are heard, is merciless and animalistic. It's also oddly beautiful, like watching West Side Story with the sound turned off.

One already notorious sequence involves a medical procedure. The scene is excruciating, not so much for what it shows – the camera keeps a respectful distance – but because it's the first time a character utters a sound.

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