The Tribe (2015 Top Movies, no.10)
(Let’s hope I actually see this through. Partly as an exercise, I’ll be writing up my Top 10 films of the year, posting 1 a day from January 1st to January 10th. Based on my timezone, the Producers Guild of America nominations for the 10 best films of 2015 should be released around January 6th, while the Directors Guild of America will announce their feature film nominees January 13th, which should make the timing fun for me.
I required all films in this list to meet only 2 basic criteria: a) those I personally saw over the year 2015 (The Revenant, The Hateful Eight, and The Big Short are notable awards season releases that I held off on seeing, and won’t magically be included if I end up seeing them over the next few days), and b) those that are dated as 2015 releases by their US distribution date. For the uninitiated, the 2nd criteria is to allow for inclusion of films (especially those produced outside of the US) that, while screened or under very limited release in 2014, were largely inaccessible to most viewers before 2015. There are a number of films I’m excited for that I would’ve loved to consider for this list, like Viva, Dheepan, and Sunset Song, but the cutoff has to come somewhere.
Oh, and while I’d call any of the films that made my Top 10 immediate recommendations for anyone (yes, I’m sparing you the inclusion of Irrational Man), this is still purely a favorites list, and not a ranking of quality, with my preferences being as personal as they get.
So onto the first entry. See heading of this post)
Writer and director: Myroslav Slaboshpitskiy; Director of photography: Valentyn Vasyanovych; Editor: Valentyn Vasyanovych
Starring: Grigoriy Fesenko, Yana Novikova, Rosa Babiy.
I’ll try to keep spoilers for the movies on this list to a minimum, but this first entry could already push me to detail a few critical scenes. A simple description of The Tribe wouldn’t do justice to how well I believe it works under its experimental face, as the “hook” – 120-minutes with no dialogue, no soundtrack, and no subtitles, or any discernible text to guide you through the plot – folds seamlessly into the narrative from well within the first act.
Set at a boarding school for deaf-mutes, all characters in the film communicate through sign language, with no source allowed to us for literal interpretation (unless you know how to sign. Director Slaboshpytskiy didn’t). Wide shots are used for almost the entire running time, with faces often obscured, leaving us with no clear expressions to read from the characters. Oh, and it shifts genre gears, going from juvenile angst to crime to romance (or at least passionate lust). And if you’re the socially conscious type, you may distract yourself with the need to know whether or not the movie is tackling something topical.
The key is none of these turn out to be hurdles, and all contribute to the engagement. We follow a newly arrived student at said-boarding school, who, after a few days of being pushed around, decides to fit in by accepting an initiation into the resident mafia. Soon he proves his thuggish worth, and joins them out on nights of street theft and pimping out their fellow schoolgirls to truckers. But even as the plot lends itself to violence (there’s an impressively choreographed schoolyard brawl shortly into the film, kept spartanly bloodless) and sex, it’s the mute conversations that never fail to steal your attention. The camera’s distant perspective (shot mostly in unbroken takes from steady vantages) proves no less personal than close-ups in a speaking film, as it allows latitude to an almost-feral depiction of sign, with fierce, kinetic gestures from the vigorous cast. You’ll stop trying to guess at what the exchanges mean, and simply trust in their body language, even as they turn towards the unsettling.
Later in the film, the protagonist convinces one of the mafia girls (and not-too-hidden object of his desire) to have intercourse with him. As he bends in to kiss her she shoves his face away, denying any more than casual sex. They proceed to screw, and again, we are spared of any vocal cues (no, not even the usual emphatic moans). Yet what begins as something dispassionately animal slowly, strangely gains a sheen of tenderness through their physical rhythm, both sides opening to their nakedness and urge, until it’s no surprise to see them consummate what was at first denied. Later still, we follow the girl to a different kind of scene altogether, and watch as she bares herself just as nakedly to another party, but to a far more gruesome purpose. If you can view this scene without turning away, more power to you. Otherwise, you may need to cover your ears, as well, as this is the one instance where Slaboshpytskiy breaks his rule and allows the girl to audibly wail for minutes that will feel longer than they are. It doesn’t matter that he keeps it bloodless; the gravity is more than delivered.
If there is a societal message here (apparently under debate, according to press releases), it’s arguably secondary. The setting and medium uncover truths of primeval violence and base instinct, festering in the many marginalized communities that may be overlooked or left neglected throughout the world, regardless of age or class. Or maybe even in those we simply choose to call sanitized, knowing there’s more animal to them than we pretend. Perhaps it’s prevalent in the deaf community, or perhaps it is not, but there’s enough reason to believe it can manifest anywhere. And it feels more potent in The Tribe than in any film I’ve seen this year.