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The Tribe | Blu-ray Review

The Tribe Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy Blu-ray CoverOne of the most pleasurable discoveries out of the 2014 Cannes Film Festival was Ukrainian director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s debut The Tribe, which won three awards after competing in the parallel Critics’ Week sidebar, including the Grand Prize (the title lost the coveted Camera d’Or at the festival to the Un Certain Regard opener, Party Girl). The film collected a host of additional awards during its festival circuit run, including a New Auteurs award at the AFI Film Festival before US distributor Drafthouse unleashed it for a limited theatrical run in June of 2015, before ending up on many year-end best lists.

In a sea of derivative cinematic components, wholly original ideas seem few and far between. In a move that recalls the style of silent cinema engagement (once viewed as a detriment to the possibilities of cinematic communication), this is presented without subtitle, cue card, or translation, set within a community of students and teachers at a school for the deaf and mute. Related completely though Ukrainian sign language, it’s a situation reversed considering that its subjects may likely experience similar instances of strain in deciphering communication efforts amongst the hearing. But what Slaboshpitsky does is create a unique method of engagement with the cinematic form, each sequence requiring an inquisitive deciphering, and set within an increasingly violent and illicit world of adolescent cliques operating the sort of crime rings going in the outside world.

We’re able to decipher that Sergey (Grigory Fesenko) is a new addition to a boarding school for the deaf, arriving moments after the principal is seen leading the student body through what appears to be a traditional rally. Dropped into a class, a teacher gets into a heated discussion with what we gather is an outspoken rebel (Alexander Osadchiy), a boy that later turns out to be the ring leader of the small faction of older boys that pimp Anya (Yana Novikova) and Svetka (Rosa Babiy) out on a nightly basis to a trucker’s parking lot. They are aided by the shop teacher (Alexander Panivan), who lends his van out to the boys in return for profits. They also have another scheme involving a front where the boys try to sell small trinkets on public transportation, but use it as a ruse to rifle through valuables left in empty cabins. When the girls’ usual nightly protector is met with a grisly accident working a shift, Sergey is elevated to watch dog. But now in close proximity with Anya, he quickly falls in love with her after a sexual encounter, a connection which deepens quickly. Matters are complicated when she discovers she is pregnant just when the shop teacher is about to secure the girls passports to Italy, where we presume they will only be further exploited.

Initially frustrating as we’re plopped into their movements and actions, we begin to adapt to the students’ ways of communication, at least enough to where we can easily get the gist of what’s going on. Several performers, including Novikova and Fesenko, often have the ability to transcend the ‘language’ barrier as emotions swell and tragic circumstances follow. But there’s forever the suspicion that we’re missing some of the finer details, though Slaboshpitsky himself doesn’t understand Ukrainian sign language and required a translator on set to ensure they were following the script. But what The Tribe does prove is our innate ability to communicate as beings despite language and cultural barriers, and it’s a pleasant surprise akin to discovering one’s initial ability to unwrap the poetry of Shakespeare’s Elizabethan era prose, for instance.

The importance of sound is paramount to the design of The Tribe, in that several instances convey additional dangers when engaged in criminal activities, such as the incredibly violent finale, or an abortion sequence that rivals the potent discomfort of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (2007).

It should go without saying that its depiction of the deaf is also not universal (beyond the violent crime and subjugation of women, of course), with nearly all of its characters mute, actual noises and sounds rarely transpiring outside scenes of frustration and extreme duress. Much of the film is composed of long, single takes, from DoP Valentyn Vasyanovych (also his feature debut) and set amidst tattered architectures that seemingly only had two color options for interiors, white and oft repeated mild blue, lending it a sobering, detached air as if it were helmed by Euro art-house master.

Disc Review:

Drafthouse continues its trend of releasing offbeat art-house fare in noteworthy packaging. The Tribe is presented in 2.35:1 with DTS-HD Master Audio, the transfer looking and sounding superb since the title forces our focus to pay closer attention to visual and audio cues. Slaboshpitksy, along with film critic Devin Faraci, are on hand for optional audio commentary, while Drafthouse includes several additional features, including the 2010 short which provided the basis for the film.

Deafness (2010):
Slaboshpitsky’s award winning 2010 film Deafness is available here. The near ten minute short features ideas the director would further hone in his feature narrative.

Interview w/Yana Novikova:
Actress Yana Novikova discusses her pursuit of acting in this twenty-one minute segment, sharing how she left Belarus to audition for an acting school in Kiev, which was accepting three deaf students. She didn’t make the program, but Slaboshpitsky was in the auditorium and offered his card to Novikova after witnessing her tears. The actress discusses particulars of filming The Tribe.

Final Thoughts:

With The Tribe, Miroslav Slaboshpitsky announces himself as a masterful new auteur. Impressively commanding audience commitment to its increasingly disturbing narrative, it’s a compelling scenario suggesting the universally understood ordeal of finding out true love is blind.

Film Review: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review: ★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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