Review: ‘The Tribe’ is a bleak, daring drama from Ukraine _lowres

Photo provided by Drafthouse Films -- Anya (Yana Novikova), left, regards Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko) with skepticism as they walk through the snow in 'The Tribe.'

Writer-director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky tells a simple story in Cannes Film Festival favorite “The Tribe.” A primal story, too, without spoken dialogue and music.

“The Tribe” is both difficult watch and difficult to turn away from. Slaboshpitsky renders no mercy to his characters or his audience. Everyone who enters the insular world of “The Tribe” suffers.

In this brutal drama set during a grim Ukraine winter, sound is incidental and circumstantial. Slaps and blows to the face, for instance, are heard. Also kicks to the bodies of robbery victims. The sound of running water is heard when gang members punish one of their own, forcing his head into a sink.

Much of cruelty in “The Tribe” happens in a Ukrainian high school for the deaf. Students as well as the faculty, which is mostly represented by a woodworking teacher who moonlights as a pimp, communicate through sign language.

Slaboshpitsky photographs events at the school and elsewhere through stationary cameras and lengthy shots. The lack of music and spoken conventional makes the scenes all the more intense.

Such minimalist camera work isn’t new — famous examples include “Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blow-Up,” John Ford’s “The Searchers” and Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” — but Slaboshpitsky exploits the technique to the extreme.

Watching “The Tribe” is almost like watching a nature documentary. There’s savagery in the violence at the school and beyond the school grounds. Most of the off-campus activity happens during nocturnal forays to steal and engage in prostitution.

The story begins as deaf teenager Sergey enrolls in the boarding school for the deaf. If he knew what he was getting himself into, and if had a choice in the matter, Sergey likely would not enroll, even if that meant becoming a runaway.

Faculty members are rarely seen in “The Tribe.” With the exception of the school’s woodworking teacher (Alexander Panivan), it’s possible that most of them either have no idea that horrid things regularly happen at the school. Or else they look the other way. And maybe the faculty gets a cut of stolen goods and money made from female students’ prostitution.

The school’s lack of oversight gives a free pass to a brutal student hierarchy. New kid Sergey is immediately drafted to be a foot soldier in the gang.

Grigoriy Fesenko’s Sergey goes along with the gang, perhaps because he knows he’s beyond help. But maybe Sergey, willing do what’s necessary to survive though he is, isn’t by nature a bad guy. He’s surely not as experienced in crime and punishment as the older gang members.

Sergey’s fate appears to be months and years at the school participating in the gang’s organized criminal activities. He questions his place in the system, though, after he develops a romantic interest in Anya (Yana Novikova), one of the gang’s girl prostitutes.

The introduction of passion and tenderness into the story doesn’t change Slaboshpitsky’s and cinematographer Valentyn Vasyanovych’s detached presentation of events. The movie’s scenes stay silent and still, lacking the frantic editing and camera work used so often in American movies to heighten action sequences. The stillness makes the acts of violence in Slaboshpitsky’s modern-day fable all the more crushing.

With uncompromising “The Tribe,” the winner of four Cannes Film Festival awards, Slaboshpitsky, a 40-year-old native of Kiev, shows his a filmmaker worth watching.