“Gimmick” is a four-letter word in the vernacular of most film buffs. But aren’t there gimmicks worth celebrating, for their novelty and adventurousness? The Tribe, which basically swept the Critics’ Week festival at Cannes last year, boasts an audaciously original hook: Every one of the film’s cast members is a deaf, non-professional actor, and every line of dialogue is delivered through un-subtitled sign language. Distributors the world over have been contractually forbidden to translate the nonverbal communication depicted on-screen, meaning that every person who sees the film—perhaps even hearing-impaired viewers, except for those who use Ukranian sign language—is placed in the same rare position of having to figure out what the hell is going on. That old adage about cinema being a universal language is truly put to the test.
It’s a nervy stunt, and there’s something thrilling about trying to suss out the details of the narrative through nothing but body language and context. Thing is, that would be true of basically any story told in this style. And one reason that The Tribe “works” is that it presents a story so simple and familiar, so cliché even, that one doesn’t need to understand what the actors are saying to follow along. Set just outside of Kiev, the film puts an overlong, sometimes brutal spin on the stock scenario of a shy outsider who gets mixed up with the wrong crowd. The new kid at a posh boarding school, baby-faced teenager Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko) is initiated into the titular gang, a group of rebellious rich kids who don’t let their hearing impairment get in the way of their criminal activities—namely, robbing and beating the shit out of strangers and pimping out their willing female classmates to truckers. Surviving the hazing rituals, Sergey moves up the ranks, eventually earning the plum position of handler for the teen prostitutes. Trouble begins when he falls for one of the girls, Anya (Yana Novikova), whose decision to sleep with him on a whim has dire consequences for both parties.
Watching The Tribe, it’s never entirely clear—at least to those, again, who don’t sign—whether the film is depicting a school for the deaf or an entire town, maybe even an alternate world, where no can hear. (Everyone the students encounter, from the truckers to doctors to strangers on the street, communicate through non-vocal means.) The general impression one gets is that writer-director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky is less interested in the deaf community—though there are some interesting elements of that, including such small touches as a blinking light in place of a classroom bell—than he is in purely visual storytelling. Nor does he express much desire to explore silent-film tropes: For all the gesticulating necessitated by sign language, the acting is naturalistic, not boldly stylized, and Slaboshpitsky employs lots of modern technique, following his main character down long hallways through smooth, elaborate Steadicam shots. It’s the grammar of contemporary arthouse cinema, complete with protracted single takes—including a long, explicit sex scene in a boiler room—and a total, arguably appropriate lack of music.
Engineered, perhaps, to remind viewers that deaf people can be selfish, amoral monsters too, The Tribe also feels distinctively modern in its harsh subject matter. As Sergey loses the trust of his comrades, and the plot comes to an inevitably violent head, Slaboshpitsky amps up the unpleasantness. (There’s a medical procedure late in the film that’s among the most harrowing of its kind ever put on-screen. No words necessary to get the grueling impact of that scene.) But Sergey remains such a sullen cipher, a petulant lump of resentment, that the film never achieves much dramatic power. The irony is that a little comprehensible dialogue might actually have lent the kid some personality; even archetypal characters can come alive when given something clever or interesting to say—though, of course, he could be Oscar Wilde, for all most of the audience will know. The Tribe is a singular, fascinating experiment, but that’s about all it is. It gives gimmicks a good name, without ever transcending its own.