If the essence of cinema lies not in dialogue—a relic of previous art forms—but in the gestures, the movements, the compositions, and the editing, then Miroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s “The Tribe” should not feel like it is missing anything. The film is conducted entirely in Ukranian sign language, without the assistance of subtitles or narration, leaving the viewer to fill in the gaps in spoken language by a process of deduction. This is a clever way of stripping filmmaking down to its barest formal necessities—a new style of critiquing Hollywood’s ubiquitous syntax—but the approach is more appealing in theory than effective in practice. “The Tribe” might not feel like it is missing anything, per se, but the film’s steadfast focus on form never allows it to emerge from an artificial realm of auteurist navel-gazing. Perhaps dialogue is needed to distract the audience from seeing the puppet-strings; perhaps the true technical magic of cinema only works if it remains an opaque mystery.
This being said, the lack of dialogue here could simply represent another kind of diversionary technique: an attempt to keep the viewer from recognizing the thinness of the genre-grounded narrative (a boarding school for the deaf functions as an organized crime syndicate). What takes us a minute to comprehend would have taken us ten seconds if the sign language interchanges had been subtitled; Slaboshpytskiy us through a rigorous attention-test that seemingly rewards us for comprehension more than it enlightens us via its aesthetics. Slaboshpytskiy’s focus on the visual rarely bears fruit of its own, which may well be the filmmaker’s fault more than the concept’s. Consider his extended and elaborate tracking shots, which loop around corridors to follow the characters in roving compositions that reflect the highest degree of aesthetic precision possible. These may have lent another, more conventionally-told film a sense of dynamism—supplementing complementary elements of filmmaking—but in “The Tribe,” they come across as little more than obnoxious pronouncements of formal accomplishment. Once we figure out what is happening in the shots, the only thing left to do is make qualitative judgments about the technique of such shots, as nuanced character development is often marred by Slaboshpytskiy’s framing choices.
Of course, if “The Tribe” aims to be a visually-conscious rejection of narrative cinema—the postmodern era’s answer to Soviet montage—then I should not even be thinking about character development in the first place. This gets to the heart of the problem with the movie: Slaboshpytskiy wants to do something new with cinema, but he hasn’t the faintest clue of what that something new is. Form should always follow function, even when the function is not narrative; form cannot replace function. Thus, “The Tribe” is left to coast on its novelty as the only un-subtitled film starring exclusively deaf actors you have ever seen. It is a shame that such a unique scenario could not have been put to better use.