Never did I expect a movie with no dialogue and no music to be the first film to make me cover my ears in sheer terror. But a jarring Saturday night screening of The Tribe left me sobbing uncontrollably with my hands over my head during one particularly disturbing scene. I can honestly say I've never experienced anything like it before.
This feature-length debut from director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky is a remarkably unique film-going experience—a term that feels not at all undeserving for this Cannes standout, which uses solely sign language and no spoken dialogue throughout its 132-minute run. Its uniqueness is obvious from the get-go, and the discomfort of entering the film's austere universe is felt right away. Without subtitles or musical cues, the viewer must rely entirely on context, body language, and the occasional groans from its all-deaf, first-time-actor cast. The viewer will also realize how much of a story one can pick up just from reading emotions, movements, and unspoken character dynamics. As for the missing pieces? They're what make this film so enigmatic and intriguing.
The Ukrainian crime drama centers around a school for the deaf and its mafia-like gang of male students, who beat up and steal from strangers and pimp out their girl classmates to depraved truck drivers. The film's main character, Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko), is a newcomer who climbs the social ladder by participating in and later even facilitating these terrible acts. Falling in with the wrong crowd proves to have dire consequences—those consequences, which unravel in a rather merciless latter half of the movie.
Set during a cold and gray winter, the film's grimness is already emphasized, but it becomes progressively more dejecting as we find out what these young boys are capable of and how willing they are to do these abysmal things. The scenes of the girls being prostituted are especially hard to watch—even just the implications are worse than the film's explicit sex scenes between the two leads, which are silent with the exception of heavy breathing and body parts awkwardly slamming against each other. The director's propensity for shooting long takes makes sexual situations especially uncomfortable, and its violent ones seemingly unending.
But there's one particularly unnerving scene that really shook me to my core. [Mild spoilers ahead] It involves an illegal home abortion—a ruthlessly brutal scene that lasts far too long, soundtracked only by the pained moans of Anya (Yana Novikova) and the cold, metallic clinks of the medical equipment. The combination of those sounds made it impossible to get through—and more than anything, impossible to listen to. And this is coming from someone who frequently watches and enjoys horror movies. Yet the horror of this scene was unlike anything I had ever experienced, and the overwhelming revulsion and pain made me cry in a hysterically silent way while trying to block out all sounds. I've never reacted to a movie like this before, and while I knew going into the movie that it would be challenging, I never expected to be hit on a level like this.
In the director Q&A following the screening, I found out that I wasn't the only one who had reacted so dramatically to that particular scene. The moderator mentioned that a woman had passed out during his first screening, and writer-director Slaboshpitsky revealed that in fact several people had fainted around the world. It may have to do with the science of the film's sound design (I'm still not 100-percent sure why I had that visceral of a reaction to the sound), or perhaps it was the body fainting as an empathy response. The goriness is actually kept to a minimum—you don't see much of what's exactly happening, except some blood—but it's mostly Anya's performance, with her unrestrained gasps of pain, that makes this moment especially taxing.
But that's not the only reason The Tribe is such an exceptional, never-before-seen type of film. It's more than just cheap shock value shtick like, say, The Human Centipede. With The Tribe, the power of communication is restructured and re-examined, with a story that's strange and disturbing enough to haunt you. It's a glimpse into the real-life past of the director, who used to be a crime reporter and grew up next to a deaf school in Ukraine, but with the added drama and terror of cinema. The making-of alone is a feat, but it's done so masterfully that you're completely transported to this world of silence and violence—sometimes so deep that you break down, unable, in that moment, to find an escape.