Thursday, August 13, 2015

Brutality rules a school for the deaf

The Tribe definitely will leave you shaken.
The Tribe, Ukrainian director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy's harrowing debut film portrays a society steeped in brutality and corruption.

If Slaboshpytskiy intended for his movie to be a commentary on current Ukrainian society, one shudders to think about the condition of that country's soul.

Set entirely in a high school for the deaf, The Tribe goes against the grain of expectation. No affirmative look at the way young deaf people learn to cope, The Tribe instead stares straight into a bleeding heart of darkness.

The high school that's depicted in the film breeds juvenile crime and corruption. The one teacher we meet -- he runs the wood shop -- is more enabler than mentor, and the movie's deaf actors reveal themselves as predators who must fend for themselves in a lawless environment.

Slaboshpytskiy builds the story around Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko), a newly arrived student who must find his place in the boarding school's brutal pecking order. Sergey quickly becomes a member of the "tribe," an outfit of older boys who are given to robbery and to running a prostitution ring.

Under protection of the gang's guards, two young deaf women (Rosa Babiy and Yana Novikova) prowl truck stops at night, soliciting business from the drivers.

Because the students are deaf, the film contains no dialogue, and Slaboshpytskiy offers no subtitles for the signing done by the characters. He effectively abandons us in this world, offering few signposts to guide us.

Not being able fully to understand these silent characters only adds to the film's abiding sense of terror. Even when Sergey falls for one of the girls, and decides that she shouldn't be selling her body, the movie never surrenders its grim view of the world as a place in which power derives from brute force.

The Tribe isn't easy to watch: If you don't avert your eyes during a scene in which Novikova's Anna pays a largely indifferent woman to abort an unwanted pregnancy, you've got a stronger stomach than I.

I don't know how far Slaboshpytskiy wants us to carry this stark allegory. Does he mean to speak to the human condition or only to the coarseness of Ukrainian life? Is this a narrowly focused look at what has been dubbed "the deaf mafia" or a broader indictment of deeply rooted societal corruption?

Either way, The Tribe works you over. It's not really an entertainment: It's a slam to the gut from someone who knows how to land a punch.

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