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The Tribe | Review

Get the Picture: Slaboshpitsky’s Excellent, Memorably Pronounced Debut

The-Tribe-Movie-PosterIn 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), Ukrainian director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky presents his debut The Tribe 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.

Reviewed on November 7 at the 2014 AFI Film Festival – New Auteurs Programme. 130 Min.


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), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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