Editor’s Notes: The Tribe is currently out in limited theatrical release.
Code Unknown, Michael Haneke’s masterpiece of miscommunication, concludes with the unsubtitled shot of a mute child signing, his half-minute gesticulations an evidently articulate evocation of a meaning to which the great majority of the audience, of course, will have no access. It’s the ideal bookend, together with the charades-centric opening scene, for a film fixated not only with the limits of language, but with the cinema’s capacity to transcend them too. That’s ostensibly the idea behind first-time feature helmer Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s The Tribe, shot entirely in sign language and announced at its outset as a film without translation, narration, and subtitles, a bold move that’s been broadly embraced as an unprecedented new appropriation of silent cinema heritage to modern movie-making technique.
Yet with exploitation comes impact, and for all the discomfiting decadence of The Tribe’s most miserably violent sequences, it’s not hard to see why so many have celebrated its unique effect.
But Slaboshpitsky’s is a register far removed from the emotional tonality of pre-speech cinema; like Haneke, his is a camera that favours a remove, his dearth of close-ups further denying the intrinsic identification his lack of dialogue already does much to defer. That he should manage nevertheless to efficiently establish his characters and the narrative they enact, then, is testament at once to a talent effectively honed in a series of similarly silent shorts and the generic framework on which the filmmaker heavily leans to impress this story of a newcomer to a boarding school for deaf-mute students who finds himself not entirely unreluctantly drawn into the consuming crime ring on which this institution, staff and all, seems to operate.
The clumsy introduction of sartorial and symbolic cues—the most explicit instances where Slaboshpitsky’s communicative conceit costs—isn’t necessary to establish this as a distinctly-politicised plot: the hierarchical indoctrination of this innocent—unnamed, of course, until the closing credits—in a setting as broad a social symbol as a school would invite attention as a state-of-the-nation statement even if the director’s previous efforts did not. It’s a decidedly grim portrait he paints: here protractedly detailing the process and pain of a back-alley abortion, there unflinchingly accompanying an assault of the utmost depravity, Slaboshpitsky makes clear with an uneasy onslaught of extremity that prospects are poor, but the extent of the indulgence long after the point’s been made can’t but tip the scales toward exploitation.
For all the inference invited by resolute refusal to translate, it’s rarely so much the reading of gesture that keeps us up to speed as that of genre.
Yet with exploitation comes impact, and for all the discomfiting decadence of The Tribe’s most miserably violent sequences, it’s not hard to see why so many have celebrated its unique effect. Actions indeed speak louder than words: proffering a visceral rebut to vocalisation, Slaboshpitsky and cinematographer-editor Valentyn Vasyanovych’s extended takes achieve at their peak—a series of sublime and surprising sex scenes between the commendably game Grigoriy Fesenko and Yana Novikova—a motion-as-meaning virtuosity that stands as a profound realisation of the film’s admirable ambition. Would that the rest of the film could quite claim the same: only here is the ambivalence of the characters’ unspoken interactions given the kind of dramatic weight the convenient confines of genre otherwise deny us.
That’s the ultimate issue that withholds The Tribe from being—if never not compelling—quite the coup de cinema it’s keen to be considered: for all the inference invited by resolute refusal to translate, it’s rarely so much the reading of gesture that keeps us up to speed as that of genre. In depriving us of linguistic understanding of his characters, Slaboshpitsky hasn’t so much forced a reliance on primal human connection as fostered a dependence on classical cinema convention. Where the unsubtitled signing of Code Unknown pointed to the peril and pain of misunderstanding one another, The Tribe’s consistent equivalent establishes itself as only a puzzle to be solved, more concerned with the picture being added up to as the individual pieces that make it.
The Tribe’s consistent equivalent establishes itself as only a puzzle to be solved, more concerned with the picture being added up to as the individual pieces that make it.