Hear No Evil
by Jeff Reichert
Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, Ukraine, Drafthouse Films
Be wary of Miroslav Slaboshpitskyâ€™s debut feature, The Tribe. You might have heard of it: itâ€™s the Ukrainian film that took Cannesâ€™ Criticsâ€™ 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. Itâ€™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 havenâ€™t seen before. Be wary of The Tribe not for its violence or sex or impenetrability. Beware of it because itâ€™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 Tribeâ€™s hunkish, brooding protagonist, is the new boy at a school for the deaf in an unnamed Ukraine city. Heâ€™s barely made his way across the threshold of the decaying facility before heâ€™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 Sergeyâ€™s physique and pliability they invite him in. Weâ€™re never given any insight into Sergeyâ€™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 heâ€™s someone with few connections and an easy mark to join up with just about anything.
The Tribeâ€™s rising movements are all exploration, exuberance, and exhilarationâ€”Sergey now belongs, and heâ€™s excited by the power this belonging affords. He runs afoul of the gangâ€™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. Heâ€™s assigned to be her pimp, but she learns Sergeyâ€™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 Sergeyâ€™s improper sampling of the wares leads to his violent, humiliating excommunication from the group. Revenge ensues. Thereâ€™s an allegory of the Ukraine somewhere in all of this, Iâ€™m sure.
Boys have been behaving badly onscreen at least as far back as 1903â€™s The Great Train Robbery. Thus, thereâ€™s no crime in working within the boundaries of the familiar: one of this yearâ€™s most engaging thrillers, Jaume Collet-Serraâ€™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 fundamentalsâ€”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 doesnâ€™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 Slaboshpitskyâ€™s vague faculty with his narrative elements for so long. Itâ€™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 movesâ€”that new signal of cinematic masteryâ€”which keep us always at armâ€™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 theyâ€™ve made, but too often the deafness that fuels The Tribe is beside the pointâ€”except when Slaboshpitsky smacks us with the occasional reminder, as in the filmâ€™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 boyâ€™s sleeping roommate doesnâ€™t hear whatâ€™s coming his way and wake up. (Oh, right, heâ€™s deaf.) Asking that The Tribe provide viewers with a rounded picture of a community with which theyâ€™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, itâ€™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 filmâ€™s central marketing images) reveals the precious preciseness of Slaboshpitskyâ€™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 isnâ€™t brown, gray, or dark green in the film. Itâ€™s beautiful, in its way, but like much of the film, wholly airless. The Tribe is a flawless contraption, and thereâ€™s something impressive in its design; when immersed in one of its mammoth Steadicam moves, unable to understand the language, itâ€™s clear how powerful visual storytelling can beâ€”weâ€™re rarely adrift in its narrative pull, always generally sure of whatâ€™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 doesnâ€™t sign, choosing to work through interpreters); perhaps if heâ€™d attempt subtler drama, the results would have been incomprehensible without subtitles. Though, as a counterargument one could introduce some of Philippe Garrelâ€™s mid-seventies silent studiesâ€”maybe Les haut solitudes or Un bleu des originsâ€”as instances of films that speak a great deal and with great complexity without any sound at all. Like The Tribe, theyâ€™re interested in violence and eroticism, but theyâ€™re more multifaceted, expressing shades of melancholy and despair, and glimmers of joy mainly through the assembling of shots of actressesâ€™ faces in close-up, placed just so in a still frame. Garrelâ€™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 seemâ€”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.