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Fantastic Fest capsule review: The Tribe

Staff Writer
Austin 360

The Alamo Drafthouse’s Tim League was so blown away by “The Tribe” after he saw it at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, he had to figure out how to buy the distribution rights. Calling it a “truly transformative” experience and a “modern classic” before Sunday’s screening, League admitted that Drafthouse Films purchased the film after he was not able to stop thinking about it for several days. “The Tribe” is many things, but it is certainly not like any other film you’ve seen before.

For starters, “The Tribe” is entirely in sign language. Set in a Ukrainian boarding school for the deaf, there is no dialogue, and despite all of the signing, none of it is translated with subtitles. At 132 minutes, this is a likely road block for many viewers. I walked into the film fascinated at the prospect of viewing it without completely understanding what was happening.

We don’t even learn any character names, but from the press notes I’ve gleaned that the new boy who shows up at the school at the beginning of the film is Sergey. He quickly aligns himself with the most powerful group in the building — boys who are running the school as a well-protected mafia. They have an elaborate system in place for local robberies, and they even act as pimps for a few female students who they regularly take out to a truck stop so they can earn them more money.

The gang runs like a well-oiled machine. They have their own keys to get into locked stairwells and generally come and go as they please. Their game plan tends to be striking fear in the hearts of anybody who tries to fight back against them, viciously beating fellow students and ransacking rooms if they determine they’ve been stiffed in any capacity.

Sergey’s downfall is making the mistake of falling in love with Anna, one of the girls he has taking out to prostitute herself so that the gang can make money. Once he’s on the wrong side of his fellow bullies, he has to fight for his own survival.

Director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy takes us into this world without words and presents us with some truly disturbing visuals. In particular, there’s an on-screen abortion that feels like it goes on for an eternity and is incredibly graphic. That goes double for the some of the sexuality, for which the film would be hard-pressed to earn an R-rating if it were submitted (I suspect it will go out unrated).

As “The Tribe” crawled towards its incredibly brutal ending, the only thing I knew for sure was that it was one of the most unpleasant theatrical experiences that I’d had in a very long time. Unsympathetic characters in film are nothing new, but if you can’t find one person to root for in a story, it’s a problem. This film is occasionally fascinating and often frustrating. It’s definitely not forgettable, but it isn’t a story that I’ll ever be willing to revisit. In that respect, it truly is a “once-in-a-lifetime” film experience.

“The Tribe” screens again at 1:50 p.m. Thursday.