The words “homage to the silent movie” might appear in the film’s press materials, but Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s debut feature couldn’t be further from The Artist. Set in a cinderblock Kiev boarding school for the deaf, The Tribe concerns a brutal gang of teenagers running rackets that include pimping female classmates out to truck drivers. But the Ukrainian director takes the commonplace premise of an insular criminal underworld to another level by making subtitling a formal option: none of the characters’ sign language is translated.

With the crutch of text banished—and with Slaboshpytskiy embracing the festival-film vernacular of long-take, hang-back views—we become pure observers of bodies and customs, of obscure exchanges and nasty violence. The story follows (often literally, by Steadicam) new foot-soldier Sergey as he ascends the gang’s power structure and falls for Anna, one of the girls in his charge. The young nonprofessional actors at times look too innocuous to be bashing in heads or turning tricks, but the explicit sex scene between Sergey and Anna seems to return this couple at least temporarily to a state of youthful vulnerability and innocence.

The Tribe is situated in the type of post-Communist social wasteland in which schools seem to have become breeding grounds for crime and corruption (much as in last year’s Kazakh film Harmony Lessons). That much is familiar, but does Slaboshpytskiy’s treatment of sign language amount to exoticizing it? Perhaps, but nevertheless the film also demonstrates that fiercer human urges need no translation.                       

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