The Tribe

The Tribe ★½

Points for audacity and originality, but not much more. Haven't been this actively repulsed by a film since... Hard to be a God. (Might as well throw credibility out all at once, right?) It's not so much that the film is brutal, than that the film is just that, relying on formal rigor and a bold conceit to get by; but shock-value really only goes so far.

A few notes:

1. Take the lengthy abortion scene. It's brutal and hard to watch, to be sure, but does it do more than make the audience cringe? I'd contend that it doesn't. It's not even the graphic nature of the scene, but the fact that dramatically, it has little bearing on the film overall, and connects to the scenes before and after in only the most superficial manner. Before the scene in question, all we know is that the woman is pregnant, and (by inference) that she doesn't intend to keep the baby, not unexpected given the context. We also know that the father could be our protagonist—again, not an unusual plot point. But the way that the abortion plays out on-screen, using the master-shot style characteristic of the entire film, isolates it from the larger "plot" (insofar as one exists). The location is disconnected from everything else; the interaction with the abortionist is perfunctory; the woman seems unfazed and knows exactly what to do and where to go (one could infer that she has done this before). There's no reason for the scene to play out as it does even, or frankly, for the scene to exist at all, since it's virtually forgotten afterwards (as far as someone who doesn't speak Ukranian sign language is concerned). Compare this to, say, the abortion scene in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, which uses a similar master-shot style. In that scene, the tension inherent in the set-up is ramped up by accompanying knowledge: the obvious illegal nature, the demands of the abortionist, the threat of discovery, etc. There are also a myriad of psychological and moral implications that resonate throughout. By contrast, the scene in The Tribe exists in isolation. There is no threat of danger or discovery, no implication of the possible impact the abortion may have, and thus, no dramatic purpose. The one possible reading of the scene that could render it something other than gratuitous is the observation that while we are able to hear the woman's screams of pain, the abortionist (also a deaf-mute) is not able to, and so is insulated in that way. This explanation seems flimsy to me since, there are clear visual signs of pain that the abortionist would be able to recognize; in fact, her hyper-clinical actions seem expressly designed for her to avert her eyes from the pain she's causing. Obviously, a dimension of that pain would be absent to her, but even that seems far too shallow a reason to include it at such length.

2. The master-shot style is woefully unsuited to the film at hand. It's formally rigorous, as many have pointed out, but that doesn't meant it's effective. The sign-language conceit already adds a layer of abstraction to the on-screen action and violence; the master-shot style only intensifies this, obfuscating to the point where the characters are all but dehumanized. Left with only the outlines of a story and the specifics of the bodily action, any shred of psychological depth is removed; and so the film itself becomes devoid of any sort of point of view. There is no perspective, no observation, only a desire to keep the audience watching, by whatever means necessary. It's exploitative and (in some scenes) downright offensive. The ending in particular gives us not just a startling act of brutality, but does it twice, in succession, in exactly the same way. When the protagonist paused before carrying it out the second time, it almost seemed as if the filmmakers were thinking: "What can we do differently to make it even more brutal? You know what? Let's just do the same thing again!"

3. It's not silent cinema, and it’s not even an analogue to it. The first assertion is self-evident, but the second perhaps needs some qualification. Obviously, comparisons to films of the silent era are understandable and not entirely off-base, but they also don't take into account the simple fact that unlike films from the pre-sound era, The Tribe doesn't primarily tell its story visually since it adheres so strongly to the master-shot technique. And unlike silent films, it doesn't substitute dialogue with more expressive acting, directed editing techniques or inter-titles, it substitutes spoken dialogue with just another form of dialogue, which might have worked had Slaboshpytskiy chosen a different formal approach. (That said, the film is compositionally, quite impressive, one of the reasons the run-time isn't entirely unproductive.) The film works as a narrative only insofar as it relies on established story beats (here of the crime-thriller genre: the new recruit rising in the organizational ranks, a forbidden love affair, breaches of unspoken social codes, a violent, vengeful finale, and so on). A different version of the film might have done the same thing with sign language, but used techniques from the silent era, which is all to say that to me, The Tribe is a bold, if also failed experiment.

4. Writing all this makes me realize that many of my gripes fundamentally go back to #2. And while I'm glad that this type of innovation is occurring, I guess this iteration just wasn't for me. It actually kinds of pains me to be on the negative side of such an exciting experiment. Still, better a bold failure than a trifling mediocrity. More please?

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