And the award for the Happiest Movie Ever goes to The Tribe, a two hour and 11 minute Ukrainian film told entirely in sign language with zero subtitles, all shot in piercingly clear 2.39:1 widescreen on 35 mm film, primarily on a stedicam in wide shot, and consisting of numerous, extremely protracted takes where time feels scarily infinite. This is one of the more disturbing films I’ve seen, casually cruel, extraordinarily hostile, and made all the more troubling because I really believed it. All of it. It’s sad, it’s dispiriting, it’s hugely challenging, and by the end, totally and undeniably fascinating and astonishing. Honestly, I’ve never seen anything like it before, I’m not sure I ever need to see it again, and in terms of taking me to a place that I’ve never been and plunging me into a story I could never anticipate, The Tribe succeeds in ways that few films rarely do.
The fact that this film is the debut for writer/director Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi sort of defies logic, as it’s a piece of work that feels beyond confident and suggesting a long and studied sense of storytelling. And for the film’s producer, cinematographer and editor, Valentyn Vasyanovych, it’s a piece of nearly peerless filmmaking, with shots that seem to last for an interminable amount of time, daring you to look away, and highlighting some of the most intense sequences of sexuality and emotional and physical violence that I can remember seeing outside of a Gaspar Noe film. After premiering at the Cannes Film Festival, The Tribe won the Nespresso Grand Prize, the France 4 Visionary Award, and the Gan Foundation Support for Distribution Award at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival’s International Critics’ Week.
Set in an unnamed and absurdly decrepit boarding school for deaf children (where adults are seemingly non-existent) and starring a group of unprofessional, mostly first time actors who don’t ever seem to be “acting” in the truest sense of the phrase, the narrative focuses on a new male student who quickly and shockingly learns about the hierarchal nature of the school’s social food chain, which involves any number of illicit and illegal activities carried out by various gangs, including prostitution, robbery, thuggery, and possibly worse. Things get very complicated when he falls in love with one of the girls that he’s been assigned with pimping, thus setting off a chain of events that escalate in intensity and degradation. If what I am describing sounds like some sort of endurance test, well, it is, on any number of levels.
Because the vast majority of people who will see this film won’t be deaf, watching a film told in sign language with no overt explanation forces you to observe the action and story in a very different way; the engagement level becomes more observational, especially when considering the rigorous aesthetic set in place by the filmmakers. And given that Slaboshpytskyi isn’t deaf himself, there’s a massive curiosity factor that arrives with this punishing film experience; what possessed him to tell this particular story in this particular fashion? There’s an abortion scene to rival the stuff show in 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, and the film’s final sequence, which, to my eye, was one extremely long and unbroken shot, involves a level and form of violence that’s so startling that it can’t help by elicit a dark laugh. You’ll just have to see it to believe it, and trust me, if you consider yourself a film buff, this film is the very definition of a must see. Available on Blu-ray from Drafthouse.