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'The Tribe' Says A Lot About Violence, Sex And Love — Without A Single Word

Jun 17, 2015
Originally published on June 17, 2015 8:21 pm

The notion that action speaks louder than words gets quite a workout in a new movie called The Tribe. It's the often-violent story of a teenager who tries to join the in-crowd at his new school. But on the film festival circuit, what has caused a lot of talk ... is that the film has no talk. Not a single syllable of dialogue.

I saw The Tribe at a screening that started after 9 p.m. at the end of a long first day at the Toronto Film Festival. About 100 very tired critics were sitting there with me, and when the houselights dimmed, and words came up on the screen saying "This film is in sign language. There are no translations, no subtitles, no voice-over," someone sitting near the front of the auditorium let out an alarmed "Whaaaaat?"

But no one left, and once the film's savagery got underway, leaving proved all but impossible. It's the tale of a 16-year-old deaf and mute boy named Sergey, who arrives at a Ukrainian boarding school for the deaf and falls in with a gang of toughs.

You can't tell they're toughs from appearances. They're all in neatly pressed school uniforms — crisp white shirts, dark jackets. And when adults are present, they're cautious and observant. But they are, one and all, bullies and criminals, who are unnervingly unimpeded in their juvenile delinquency by their deafness. They mug townies, steal booze and beat up younger kids. They prostitute their deaf girlfriends at truck stops, terrify commuters on a train. And through all of this, not a word is spoken.

Besides violence, the story involves nudity and sex and the direst possible consequences of those things, including a graphic onscreen abortion that's everything you'd expect of an Eastern European kitchen procedure.

First time feature director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy keeps his cast of nonprofessional deaf performers racing around, immersed in a world of unspeakable violence. And occasional lyricism, as when Sergey falls in love, though that's an emotion that doesn't seem to be held in high regard by his peers, including the girl he falls for.

Now obviously, this is not a typical school for the deaf. The director pretty clearly intends the institution as a stand-in for all the things that have gone wrong with Ukrainian society since the fall of the Soviet Union: the thuggery and thievery, the officials looking the other way, the violence that comes of disobeying what are quite literally "unspoken" rules.

Yes, onscreen events can be momentarily perplexing, but mostly, the film is a headlong adrenaline rush. In its opening moments, you may be thinking of what silent films were like in the days of Charlie Chaplin, but by the end, The Tribe has revealed itself as so original, and so chilling, it's likely to leave you speechless.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The notion that actions speak louder than words gets quite a workout in a new movie called "The Tribe." It has no dialogue, not a single syllable. Here's critic Bob Mondello.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: I saw "The Tribe" at a screening that started after 9 p.m. at the end of a long first day at the Toronto Film Festival. About 100 very tired critics were sitting there with me. And when the house lights dimmed and words came up on the screen saying this film is in sign language; there are no translations, no subtitles, no voiceover, someone sitting near the front of the auditorium let out an alarmed what? But no one left. And once the film's savage story got underway, you just couldn't. It's the tale of a 16-year-old deaf and mute boy named Sergey who arrives at a Ukrainian boarding school for the deaf and falls in with a gang of toughs. You can't tell they're toughs from appearances. They're all in neatly pressed school uniforms, crisp white shirts, dark jackets. And when adults are present, they're cautious and observant. But they are, one and all, bullies and criminals unnervingly unimpeded in their juvenile delinquency by their deafness. They mug townies, steal booze, beat up younger kids. They prostitute their deaf girlfriends at truck stops, terrify commuters on a train. And through all of this, not a word is spoken. What you're hearing right now for instance is a brawl involving about 20 teenagers outside an abandoned warehouse.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE TRIBE")

MONDELLO: One boy just nearly had his eye put out, which more or less breaks up the fight. But you heard everything that the filmmakers put up there on screen. Besides violence, the story involves nudity and sex and the direst possible consequences of those things, including a graphic onscreen abortion that is everything you'd expect of an Eastern European kitchen procedure. First-time director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy keeps his deaf performers racing around, immersed in a world of unspeakable violence and occasional lyricism. Sergey falls in love, an emotion that doesn't seem to be held in high regard by his peers, including the girl he falls for.

Obviously, this is not a typical school for the deaf. The director pretty clearly intends the institution as a stand in for all the things that have gone wrong with Ukrainian society since the fall of the Soviet Union - the thuggery and thievery, the officials looking the other way, the violence that comes of disobeying what are quite literally unspoken rules. Yes, events can be perplexing, but mostly the film is a headlong adrenaline rush. In its opening moments, you may be thinking of what silent films were like in the days of Charlie Chaplin, but by the end, "The Tribe" has revealed itself as so original and so chilling, it's likely to leave you speechless. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.