Hear No Evil
by Jeff Reichert

The Tribe
Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, Ukraine, Drafthouse Films

Be wary of Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s debut feature, The Tribe. You might have heard of it: it’s the Ukrainian film that took Cannes’ Critics’ Week by storm last year, the one about a school for the deaf in which the students do terribly violent and sexually graphic things to each other. It’s the film that contains no spoken words and no subtitles in its 130 minutes of frenetic signing, fighting, and fucking. Because of the lack of dialogue (the film is not silent; on the contrary, its design seems meticulous and expensive), The Tribe feels immediately like something we haven’t seen before. Be wary of The Tribe not for its violence or sex or impenetrability. Beware of it because it’s yet another festival-anointed contraption that seems a shiny, new model, but, when its surface is scratched, turns out to be jalopy, broken down and unloved, with Slaboshpitsky at its side, trying his damnedest to move the junker off his lot.

Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko), The Tribe’s hunkish, brooding protagonist, is the new boy at a school for the deaf in an unnamed Ukraine city. He’s barely made his way across the threshold of the decaying facility before he’s forced to strip by a group of toughs who turn out to be a motley gang running a series of criminal activities: thievery, extortion, prostitution. Impressed with Sergey’s physique and pliability they invite him in. We’re never given any insight into Sergey’s background, but that he begins the film alone, at a bus stop holding a piece of paper out to a hearing person in the hopes of receiving directions, as opposed to, say, in the backseat of a car driven by concerned parents, suggests he’s someone with few connections and an easy mark to join up with just about anything.

The Tribe’s rising movements are all exploration, exuberance, and exhilaration—Sergey now belongs, and he’s excited by the power this belonging affords. He runs afoul of the gang’s leadership when he begins an affair with another student, Anna (Yana Novikova), who allows herself to be prostituted to local truckers in effort to purchase passage out of the Ukraine to Italy. He’s assigned to be her pimp, but she learns Sergey’s a gentleman when he refuses the opportunity to screw her from behind, standing up with clothes half on in a dank basement. He argues, successfully, for a more traditional missionary pose. (She avoids his kiss like a professional, though.) As the film progresses, lust turns to obsession, though all Anna ultimately wants is out, and all Sergey wants is her. We know where this story is going. The revelation of Sergey’s improper sampling of the wares leads to his violent, humiliating excommunication from the group. Revenge ensues. There’s an allegory of the Ukraine somewhere in all of this, I’m sure.

Boys have been behaving badly onscreen at least as far back as 1903’s The Great Train Robbery. Thus, there’s no crime in working within the boundaries of the familiar: one of this year’s most engaging thrillers, Jaume Collet-Serra’s weary bruiser Run All Night, is composed of parts that hit the air so long ago the resulting film should have been a moldy loaf. But Collet-Serra cares, deeply, reverently, about his material, and his attentiveness allows audiences the opportunity to feel the pleasure of moviegoing fundamentals—the surrender to kineticism, the celebratory quality in the reiteration of larger-than-life archetypes, the loving embrace of a recognizable narrative thrust. Collet-Serra doesn’t need new tricks, or perhaps better put: his trick is recognizing the value of the old ones. What rankles about The Tribe is that its trick (removing spoken language) is only clever enough to cover Slaboshpitsky’s vague faculty with his narrative elements for so long. It’s also a plodding, often crushingly boring watch.

Instead of knuckling down and digging into his characters, or really exploring his milieu, he crafts a series of interminable Steadicam moves—that new signal of cinematic mastery—which keep us always at arm’s length. These long-playing shots invite an ethnographic eye, but The Tribe provides only a queasily unspecific view of life as a deaf person. Movies should justify the choices they’ve made, but too often the deafness that fuels The Tribe is beside the point—except when Slaboshpitsky smacks us with the occasional reminder, as in the film’s climax, where Sergey pummels one of his tormenters to death with a piece of furniture, and one wonders for a moment why the dead boy’s sleeping roommate doesn’t hear what’s coming his way and wake up. (Oh, right, he’s deaf.) Asking that The Tribe provide viewers with a rounded picture of a community with which they’re likely unfamiliar may be asking a lot, but, save for the regular flashes of violence and shots of toughs walking in formation, hands in jackets pockets, brows furrowed, it’s not much of a crime film either.

A shot of Sergey and Anna pleasuring each other orally and at some length (a frame of which, naughty bits tastefully concealed, has been put forth as one of the film’s central marketing images) reveals the precious preciseness of Slaboshpitsky’s design. The shot holds, forever, so we can admire it, the paleness of their artfully lit flesh, the symmetry of their bodies, the choice to set them on a floor against a bright blue wall, one of the few flashes of a color that isn’t brown, gray, or dark green in the film. It’s beautiful, in its way, but like much of the film, wholly airless. The Tribe is a flawless contraption, and there’s something impressive in its design; when immersed in one of its mammoth Steadicam moves, unable to understand the language, it’s clear how powerful visual storytelling can be—we’re rarely adrift in its narrative pull, always generally sure of what’s going on. Perhaps The Tribe could be more charitably viewed as a cinematic experiment, though its leering, lurid qualities suggest Slaboshpitsky has cheaper impulses on his mind.

Slaboshpitsky might have been smart to employ the clean, familiar lines of a crime narrative in his deaf movie (his second, it should be noted, after an earlier, similarly criminal-focused short called Deafness, though, oddly for all his work with the deaf, he doesn’t sign, choosing to work through interpreters); perhaps if he’d attempt subtler drama, the results would have been incomprehensible without subtitles. Though, as a counterargument one could introduce some of Philippe Garrel’s mid-seventies silent studies—maybe Les haut solitudes or Un bleu des origins—as instances of films that speak a great deal and with great complexity without any sound at all. Like The Tribe, they’re interested in violence and eroticism, but they’re more multifaceted, expressing shades of melancholy and despair, and glimmers of joy mainly through the assembling of shots of actresses’ faces in close-up, placed just so in a still frame. Garrel’s films of this period remind one, just as The Tribe does at times, of how simple and effective a communicative tool cinema is. Yet what sets them apart is just how exalting and boundless they seem—Garrel searches romantically, idealistically with his camera for essential truths. The Tribe, even with a killer concept, and all the resources and technique obviously at its disposal, depresses most because it has no interest in pulling its mind out of the gutter.