Thursday, June 25, 2015

'The Tribe' (2014) directed by Miroslav Slaboshpitsky

The Tribe sounds like a parody of arthouse cinema. It's from the Ukraine. It's shot in bleak government buildings. It's brutally violent and unflinchingly sexual. The characters communicate entirely in sign language - Ukrainian sign language. There is no dialogue. There is no score. There are no subtitles. 

Every inch of The Tribe appears designed to baffle, annoy and perplex your average cinemagoer. This makes it an exceedingly unfriendly film in almost all regards, yet, to those with a certain level of cinematic patience and the stomach for the uncomfortable, Slaboshpitsky's film pays dividends.

Now, given that the film's entirely in unsubtitled Ukrainian sign language (which, surprise surprise, I don't know) my plot summary is going to be a bit vague. The Tribe explores the seamy criminal underbelly of a deaf school somewhere in the Ukraine, examining how pupils are exploited by the teachers and each other. The lead is a new pupil (Grigoriy Fesenko), who is soon up to his eyeballs in prostitution, petty theft and casual violence.

Though for the most part we see things from his perspective, this is also the story of two girls (Yana Novikona and Rosa Babiy) who spend their nights as prostitutes to a car park of truckers. The new pupil is soon tasked with acting as their pimp, though complications arise when he falls in love with one of them. Problems begin to mount as two of their teachers make preparations to sell the girls into sex slavery in Italy, causing the new pupil to descend into violent revenge.

Or at least, that's what I think was happening. You spend a lot of The Tribe trying to figure out what's going on at any given time. This isn't the most complicated of plots but the obvious language barrier prevents any complex characterisation and narrative. So you start approaching the film in archetypes, one person's 'the mean one', another's 'the creepy teacher', 'the violent kid' and so on. 

Even without language its hard to completely lose the plot, but even if that did happen you could spend a happy two hours wallowing in Slaboshpitsky's awesomely portentous style. This is cinema as sledgehammer; the film composed of long, unblinking shots that follow the characters in and around their environment. For example, in one shot we track four children moving through a park, as we pan right more join them until 20 or 30 are perched on crumbling brick walls. Then vicious beatings break out, complete with the deaf children silently signing their enthusiasm for it.

All this is set within a crumbling, graffiti-covered frozen world entirely devoid of beauty. You can practically smell the rot emanating from the ruined ceilings and stained walls. These locations, hopefully soon earmarked for the wrecking ball, are lit by fluorescent lights that give everyone an unhealthy malnourished pallor. This hellish environment drags the film gently towards horror; especially in The Shining-esque tracking shots that explore the endless corridors of this hell-school.

And y'know, not only does it look nightmarish, but the events in it aren't exactly super happy joy time either. Be prepared for vicious beatings, abuse of a boy with Down syndrome, joyless mechanical sex, bashing in of skulls and one of the most disturbing abortion scenes I've ever seen in a film. Seriously - I've sat through the famous ultra-nasties (120 Days of Sodom, A Serbian Film and so on), but parts of The Tribe made me genuinely nauseous.

Part of it arises from the lack of vocalisation from the cast. The frantic signing feels less like we're watching the children communicate with each other and less like a portal straight to their hearts. There's something very 'off' at watching atrocities happen in dead silence, with just the faint hum of the strip lighting and exhalation of breath after blows functioning soundtrack. Some part of your brain rebels, insisting that something intangible is very wrong with this picture.

So is it a film that I can recommended? Well, it's technically, artistically and performatively outstanding in practically every way - from the precision-tooled elegance of the long tracking shots, the desaturated colour balancing, not to mention the cast of deaf Ukrainian teenagers, all of whom turn in excellent performances. But under all that there's a whiff of sadism, Slaboshpitsky going out of his way to create a viewing experience that crawls under your skin.

It's one hell of a cinematic achievement, but by God it's not for everyone. If you're the kind of person who enjoys viciously 'difficult' cinema you'll be in your element here: Slaboshpitsky turning in a film that meanders into the same bleak stylistic territory as Satantango, Antichrist or the works of Michael Haneke. If you count those among your favourites, by all means dash to The Tribe. If you're more of a Disney kind of person, I'd advise giving it some serious thought before watching this. You might never be the same again.


The Tribe is on limited release now.

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