The Tribe

The Tribe ★★★★

There exists an uncomfortable beauty in unbroken shots that are held longer than expectation dictates – a sense that what is being viewed is real and is genuinely unfurling in real time. This is how Miroslav Slaboshpitsky constructs The Tribe, his hugely impressive drama set within the oppressive walls of a boarding school for deaf children, with elongated tracking shots placing us as voyeurs peering over shoulders into the brutal, corrupting world. The verisimilitude is further reinforced by the remarkable decision to tell the story with no dialogue or subtitles, simply allowing the sign language and actions of the actors to subtly express the plot. This isn’t done with any regard for the traditions of silent cinema – nothing verges on close-up, expressions are far from exaggerated; instead Slaboshpitsky composes the film as you would any other, and The Tribe is all the more powerful for it.

The base plot is required to be fairly linear, but is still communicated with a startling articulacy. Never a moment passes where we are unsure of motivation or relationship. To sketch an outline it may appear as an experimental art piece – in a way it is – but there is a clear affection and respect for genre shown by the Ukrainian writer/director. At its core it's a mob movie, every bit as thrilling and struck through with unflinching brutality as that suggests.

A new student (Grigory Fesenko) is thrust into the lawless, gangland society of the boarding school. Muggings, prostitution and violence are commonplace, with teachers running the student body as their own breeding ground of ne'er-do-wells. Isolated and picked on, he does whatever it takes to be brought into the fold of his classmates, young thugs who strut the corridors reeking of testosterone and sportswear.

Flaking paint, former-Soviet architecture daubed in graffiti – it’s a miserable world closer to a prison than a place of learning. There is little joy to be found in the cold landscape, a feeling intensified by the thick, oppressive nature of the silence that hangs over every moment. Squeaking of shoes, buzzing of strip lights, movement of hands – these are the only sounds we hear. To see heated arguments and nerve shredding tension break out against such a background is a deeply unsettling experience. We wait for the release of a guttural scream that never comes.

The boy becomes more trusted and ingrained as part of the institution, but as is so often the case for young tough guy movie upstarts, his soft heart threatens to be his undoing as he falls in love with the girl he is supposed to be pimping around the grim, shadowy truck stop. He has been corrupted, and transformed; but his reaming sliver of humanity will tear him to pieces.

This is a narrative of pure convention shaped into a fraught, muscular tragedy by the confidence of its director. No punches are pulled, no words are spoken. For every second of The Tribe the film feels alive and charged with the unexpected. It is a remarkable achievement. Without dialogue or subtitles, the connection with Slaboshpitsky’s cruel world cannot be broken for fear of missing a beat. Resultantly it transfixes with an otherworldly strangeness that draws us in with threads of familiarity, like the blurry edges of a nightmare that contort a recognisable face into a hideous new monster.