Dismissing Miroslav Slaboshpitsky‘s Cannes award-winning drama Плем’я [Plemya] [The Tribe] as mere gimmick is easy and most especially lazy. I’d let you do so to Oscar-winning The Artist before I would this dialogue-free look at teenage rage and criminal exploitation because rendering that one silent was a purely aesthetic choice. It most certainly is here too, but don’t think the quiet isn’t also necessary to the story. Just because I—along with most people watching—cannot understand what’s being said doesn’t mean words aren’t spoken. Dismissing the film as an exercise in visual language and expression is to dismiss a portion of the world’s population. Why can’t the deaf be represented onscreen as they truly are like every other community? Our inability to understand isn’t their fault. It’s ours.
Allowing their world to speak for itself without subtitles to feed us cues is an audacious choice and one that’s probably earned Slaboshpitsky most of the acclaim lauded. It’s an immersive maneuver—simple in its authenticity and complex in its technical orchestration. Because even though the view is unfiltered, The Tribe isn’t made specifically for the deaf. It must still be accessible for the mainstream public who’s willing to give it a try, to follow along without getting frustrated. The writer/director’s decision to utilize long-takes becomes a crucial factor of this sense of universal transparency by letting us watch conversations unfold in real time with real emotion. Reaction shots meant to chop up dialogue for impact are meaningless. We need to see cadence through pacing and long-takes provide exactly that.
I could be wrong but almost every scene begins and ends before a cut, each new area and character within carefully blocked or positioned so the frame never misses a beat. This timing is measured to perfection right from Sergey’s (Grigoriy Fesenko) arrival to his Kiev boarding school. We watch him enter the grounds, get told by a janitor to use the entranceway around back, and wait until he pops up in the distance of the shot’s static climax depicting a celebration clapping and dispersing in real time. His “friendly” tour of assimilation led by King (Alexander Osadchiy) travels hallway to hallway and through rooms for laughter and geographical bearings, each destination and result speaking volumes when hand gestures fail. We experience King’s optimism and likewise Gera’s (Alexander Dsiadevich) antagonistic aggression.
The long and short of the plot concerns Sergey and his chaotic acceptance into the titular gang of miscreants organized by their shop teacher (Alexander Panivan). This crew runs train scams to fleece money from unsuspecting commuters, sells drugs (I think since we never see what the luggage bags changing hands carry), and pimp out Anya (Yana Novikova) and Svetka (Rosa Babiy). To win his way in Sergey must take a beating, give one back, and serve as King’s right-hand muscle. His promotion to handling the girls—collecting money from their truck yard Johns—comes as a result of tragedy. He volunteers to acquire more good will, but curiosity quickly derails all he’s built. Paying for a taste of the merchandise is one thing, believing her to be his quite another.
Sergey’s fall is just as rapid as his rise—maybe more so once he’s relegated to bunking with a mentally handicapped classmate instead of Gera and the boys. His obsession with fitting in and surviving the school’s extracurricular activities turns towards Anya. Caught with a bit of Stockholm syndrome, her feelings for him appear comparable and yet her duty to the tribe trumps them. Add in a subplot involving Italian passports that I admittedly never fully grasped and the climax becomes the blast of a gradually building explosion ticking down until every last vestige of humanity has been beaten out of Sergey to leave him a shell of a man with nothing to lose. The results are devastating and yet inevitable to the point where I think I actually felt relieved.
And not just because it might spell the end to Sergey’s suffering. I didn’t mind the escape from the extreme brutality Slaboshpitsky depicts in its uncut form too. Every fight, sex scene, and even an abortion procedure are shown from a distance and without artifice. There are no close-ups of orgasmic faces or curled lips of rage. We merely receive the sound effects of flesh on flesh or the screams of agony. When someone’s knocked out there’s only silence and deadly stillness. Actions we’d normally see prevented solely due to the noise each emits are carried out systematically and worry-free because those out of sight have no idea what’s happening a few feet away. Their rules are completely different than ours, their environment impossible to fathom.
In this way we can never truly guess what will happen next. We know it will be severe and bleak to match the tone consistently ravaging all light from beginning to end, but the details and who’s affected is up in the air. We place our own experiences upon Sergey, Anya and the others forgetting how trapped within themselves they are without our aural capabilities. When someone is talking behind their back they are unaware. Arguments needing a continuous stream of slaps to grab the other person’s attention makes verbal lashings physical and angrier. If King or Gera wants to voice his displeasure, it comes with a punch to the gut—simple and effective. And when vengeance looms on the horizon, there’s no more vulnerable state than sightless slumber.
courtesy of Drafthouse Films