‘The Tribe” is the latest in a long wave of pitilessly bleak Eastern European dramas, but it comes with a gimmick that transcends gimmickry and pushes the film toward allegory. Set in a moldering school for the deaf somewhere in Ukraine, Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s debut feature has not a word of spoken dialogue, nor is the Ukrainian Sign Language in which the characters communicate subtitled for our convenience. The everyday struggle in which the deaf engage with a hearing world becomes our struggle to comprehend theirs. The stakes are reversed; we’re on the outside peering in. It’s a dank, dank fishbowl.
The movie opens with the arrival of a new student (Grygoriy Fesenko) — unnamed in the film but Sergey in the credits — and a brief glimpse of an idealistic convocation ceremony. Then it’s into the pit. The older boys, led by a handsome blond sadist, run a criminal gang out of their jail-like dormitory, with nightly activities that include robbery and pimping out two female students at the local truck-stop. Sergey, initially a blank slate, has to work his way into and up the hierarchy, taking and giving punches as necessary. None of this seems to come as a surprise to him.
The only adult in sight for much of “The Tribe” is the school’s woodworking teacher (Olexandr Panivan), who gets a cut of the girls’ profits and has larger plans in the works. Anna (Yana Novikova) and Svetka (Roza Babiy) don’t mind; exploitation and atavistic cruelty are so much the norm here that when Sergey displays something like tenderness toward Anna, her first impulse is fury. What right does anyone have to love anyone else in this world?
If the characters could speak, “The Tribe” would fall squarely into the realistic tradition exemplified by the Romanian New Wave and films like “The Death of Mr. Lazerescu” and “Four Months, Three Weeks, and Two Days.” The silence that envelops the movie transforms it, rendering it colder but more unsettlingly seductive. Even as we puzzle over the specifics of what is being said, the gist comes through in the “tone” of the gestures, impassioned, contemptuous, or beseeching. An argument between Anna and Svetka is an explosion of fingers, thumped chests, and fierce gasps, all the more violent for remaining unvocalized. “The Tribe” prompts a viewer to acknowledge how much of communication is a power game, with winners and losers in every conversation, spoken or signed.
The lack of conventional speech works in a number of ways. As mentioned, it puts a hearing audience at a disadvantage for a change — it renders us deaf to what’s being said. It also lends “The Tribe” an air of universality, of metaphor, that it almost certainly wouldn’t earn on its own. And it forces us to watch with eyes wide open — so we won’t miss a clue to the onscreen drama, yes, but also so we won’t look away from Slaboshpytskiy’s harsh natural order, even if we want to.
“The Tribe” is as much a formal triumph for cinematographer Valentyn Vasyanovych, who shoots in long, intricate takes that function as a held gaze. Some of the shots, such as a graphic sex scene involving Sergey and Anna, have the balance and beauty of classical sculpture. Others, such as Anna’s visit to a back-alley abortionist, are more than many viewers will be able to bear.
Which is the director’s point, or one of them: Would you be blind as well as deaf? If “The Tribe” were set in the hearing world, its desolation would seem reductive and forced, a pose rather than a statement. Without words, the movie becomes a nihilistic fable and, indeed, something unheard of until now. It’s silent opera.