This searing Ukrainian drama, set in a school for the deaf and performed entirely in sign language, reminds us that some experiences go beyond words
From the beginning, there are no words – only a starkly forbidding title card, there to inform us the film we are about to watch is performed entirely in sign language: “There will be no subtitles, dialogue or voiceover.”
Ukranian director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s deaf-school drama, a Cannes sensation last year, is a latter-day silent that commits absolutely to its own silence; for hearing audiences, it’ll make for a crash course in adaptation. A crowdpleaser like The Artist deployed intertitles to guide us through its trickier spells of exposition; here, we’re thrown right in at the deep end. You quickly hear your own ears go pop.
It helps that this sets us on an equal footing with new arrival Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko), a blank-faced stray figuring out his place within this grim-looking institution. Long, wide Steadicam shots allow us time and space to read the movements of the bodies around him, distinguishing bullies from victims, and noting how the staff, faced with such rampant delinquency, have retreated into the background.
No-one’s intervening to halt the school’s prostitution ring, for one: while Sergey experiences something akin to first love with working girl Anna (Yana Novikova), not-for-profit intimacy isn’t a value this market sets much stall in.
That this isn’t your average school for the deaf is obvious: Slaboshpitsky surely intends it as symbolic, to stand for all the evils of the post-Soviet institution.
In this, the school resembles the church and council chambers of last year’s equally pointed Leviathan: they’re relics of Mother Russia, offering scant shelter to the country’s most vulnerable citizens. Slaboshpitsky has been accused of exploitation – when not being bashed around, his young, non-professional performers are frequently stripped bare – yet he’d doubtless argue these scenes aren’t anywhere near as cruel as the system he’s indicting.
It is true that The Tribe can feel oppressive in its virtuosity. Every now and again – notably in a protracted abortion sequence – the camera will linger a beat too long to impress upon us what these kids have been reduced to. Yet it drives its points home nevertheless, and with a visceral impact unmatched in recent world cinema.
You emerge from this brutally unsentimental education with your chest pounding and your ears ringing – its radical empathy extends to putting us in not just the same room as its subjects, but the same helpless, despairing position. Some films are made to leave you speechless; for some experiences, there can be no words.