Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s brutal film The Tribe opens with the disclaimer that its dialogue is in sign language and will not be translated with subtitles or voice-overs. We then see a young man emerge from a bus and, with pencil and paper, ask a woman for directions. She does, but he seems to have difficulties understanding her. When he finally arrives at his destination, a boarding school for the deaf, the young man, whom we will follow with relentless energy throughout the film, is late for the assembly that appears to mark the beginning of the school year. In essence, the sequence tells us that this will be a story about a young man who doesn’t know where he belongs and has problems finding a place for himself.
This is confirmed when, his first night at the school, nobody allows him to sleep in their room, forcing him to sit with his belongings in the dingy hallway. But once he is ushered into the school’s culture, he actually proves adept at finding a place for himself, taking up the violence, larceny, and pimping asked of him with ease. That is, until he falls in love with one of two girls attending the school who moonlight as prostitutes, servicing the truckers who sleep in their rigs in a nearby lot, one night refusing to let her ply her trade. Then he is quickly replaced (and so displaced) with harrowing results.
Though the story is told with ferocity and vigor—handheld cameras restlessly follow the action of the film, propelling it forward—what makes The Tribe special is what remains unspoken: everything. The lack of spoken dialogue or accompanying subtitles proves a rich strategy, deepening the story’s emotional impact by placing most viewers in a situation similar to the protagonist—just one step behind, figuring out what isn’t explicitly made clear, trying to understand just where we are and who is doing what—while opening up its significance.
Even though the film does not explicitly engage with political issues, one sees the remorseless workings of capitalism, especially in post-Soviet countries, corrupt, exploiting those who have been marginalized by the mainstream culture by isolating them and making them vulnerable. They have no voice in the culture that defines them and then hides them away. What voice they do have remains unheard to any but themselves and those who immediately take advantage of them, who could care less about what they have to say.
One also sees in stark relief how institutions of learning only superficially teach geography, math, or history. In fact, one of the few scenes occurring in a classroom shows us how little students are engaged in such learning. Instead, the harsh lessons they encounter outside of the classroom, in their dormitories, the playground, or the lunchroom, are the real ones.
If those insights aren’t exactly eye-opening, they are presented with originality. Because one doesn’t know what is being said, one becomes more engaged in piecing together the story. This is easier to do than might be imagined, due in part to the familiarity of the narrative and to the broad strokes with which it is told. But it is also because the emotions expressed are wholly readable without language, and the ambient sounds, of which the sound of skin-on-skin contact is more palpable than almost any other film I can recall, not buried beneath a musical soundtrack but making up the soundtrack itself, ask us to pay attention to what we hear and see, and not what we think we’re being told to see and hear.
Still, I couldn’t help but think that the story only got really interesting with the horrible acts that end the film. It might have made a richer movie had the story begun with them or at least hinged on them so we might see the protagonist face what he has wrought. But that story, the hard lesson that all of us must face day after day, remains unspoken.