Deaf Drama ‘The Tribe’ Is a Staggering Film but Not Quite a Great One


Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s bleak school drama The Tribe was shot in the Ukraine, but you won’t be reading subtitles.

The cast, all first-time actors, are deaf teenagers, and Slaboshpitsky’s camera pads behind them into their state-run boarding school, where the Fagin-esque teachers have enlisted a mute mafia: The smaller boys hawk trinkets on the trains (and steal the odd wallet), while the older boys pimp out the two class beauties to truck drivers. With no dialogue, The Tribe squares the camera on a static shot and forces us to trawl for clues: the peeling paint that speaks to institutional neglect; the brazenness of a girl’s cocked hip implying she’s hooked enough to get over her fear but not so much that her spirit’s been gutted; the lack of adults who give a damn.

In a ground-down setting where no one knows the answers, why not piece together the scant plot from athletically pantomimed, indecipherable action? When the girls are gifted passports to Italy, we’re not sure if they’re being sent as sexual slaves — and, probably, neither are they. The film’s absorbing and, ironically, deafening as Slaboshpitsky cranks up the sound effects to a violent decibel — none of the kids cares how loud anyone slams a door. The audience’s world, and ours alone, jitters with racket, especially diesel engines that we forget (until it’s too late) the students can’t hear.

It’s a staggering film, but not a brilliant one — a superior version would have played more with the gulf between our senses and theirs. Instead, The Tribe settles for shocks from the degradation of its cast, in particular slender blonde Yana Novikova, who offers her naked body with a blasé shrug.

The Tribe

Directed by Miroslav Slaboshpitsky

Drafthouse Films

Opens June 17, Film Forum

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