Wednesday, June 8, 2016

"The Tribe": The Novelty of Nonverbalism

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

The Tribe is a singularly unique film in how it is presented and in how that presentation relates with its audience.  The film has no verbally spoken dialogue.  The only language in the film is Ukranian Sign Language.  There are no subtitles.  This means that, by purposeful design, only a very small percentage of any given audience, most usually not a single person, will be able to understand what anyone in the film is saying.  This is a bold creative move by director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, one grounded in artistic experimentalism rather than audience gratification.  However, whether that artistic purpose is achieved is very much up for debate.

To give a plot synopsis would be a disservice to the film, since the primary point is for the audience to try and deduce the story without the assistance of exposition or verbal cues.  Thankfully, the film is fairly archetypal, at least in early scenes, with the characters establishing themselves via tropes already familiar to us as connoisseurs of other cinema.  This does not make the story necessarily easy to follow, but it acts as a starting point by which we can ground this conceptually foreign experience.

And yes, at times this works remarkably well.  Even though I wasn’t able to assign names to any of the characters, I was able to figure out their relationships to one another and generally follow the beats of the story.  Even when the film later deigns to go off the rails into atypical territory, I was able to understand character motivations and know why events were unfolding as they were.  Even the setting, a boarding school for the deaf, caused the surrounding community’s non-verbal gesturing to make sense, even if it did stretch the surreality of this world to its limits.

But the experiment isn’t entirely flawless in its execution.  Whether the film is meant to be obtuse or is merely hard to follow at times is unclear, but I do know that during particular scenes I was completely lost, only to catch up later without any clear understanding of what I had been missing out on.  The film is less interested in portraying deaf experience than it is in visual storytelling, so the fact that the film lost me in certain moments does not speak highly of those portions.  Furthermore, as the film enters its third act, more often than not it uses its non-verbal conceit to set-up moments of shock horror, usually in the form of shocking violence that would likely have made more immediate sense if we could understand just what dialogue led up to it.  The most egregious example of this is a scene culminating in an invasive medical procedure.  Even without words it is heartwrenching and dramatic, but it seemingly came out of nowhere and was purely present to evoke my exact visceral reaction.

Even with those caveats, though, The Tribe is worth seeing for the novelty of its experiment.  It is by no means a perfect execution of its concept and is at times blatantly manipulative of its audience, but as an exercise of cinema as artistry, I’ve seen much worse attempts to stretch a gimmicky concept to feature length proportions.  Just prepare yourself for some disturbing imagery and don’t expect to walk away loving the film.  It’s a novelty act, but at least it’s a notable one.

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