This startlingly original first feature from Ukraine’s Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy stars a cast of deaf actors playing students at a boarding school harboring organized crime. Rating: 3.5 stars out of 4.

Share story

There’s nothing that prepares a viewer for “The Tribe,” a startlingly original, at times unbearably intense drama from Ukraine that — on a moment-to-moment, scene-by-scene basis — blows up expectations on every level: narratively, visually and in terms of performance.

Start with its near silence. Apart from occasional ambient noise, there is nothing to hear in this brutal first feature by former journalist Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy.

The film’s young cast is composed of deaf actors who communicate entirely through sign language. Given the story’s setting in a boarding school harboring vicious, organized criminality, characters also resort to more generally aggressive expressiveness: a shove to get someone’s attention, a sharp swat in the air to dismiss protestations. These mesmerizing, stylized movements at times border on dance.

Movie Review ★★★½  

‘The Tribe,’ with Grigoriy Fesenko, Yana Novikova, Rosa Babiy. Written and directed by Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy. 132 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences. In sign language with no subtitles. Northwest Film Forum, through Thursday.

Slaboshpytskiy provides no subtitles or anything for hearing audiences to know what is being said. For anyone un­familiar with the sign language here, we never quite know what’s going on in any of the film’s lengthy, often one-take, uncut scenes (there are only 34 cuts in the entire movie) until we’re deep into the action.

An unnamed new student (Grigoriy Fesenko) arrives at the crumbling, grim school, survives a bruising hazing and soon falls in line with the older kids’ gangster culture, which includes savagely beating pedestrians and pimping two deaf girls (Yana Novikova, Rosa Babiy) to truck drivers.

What follows is the student’s gradual transformation into a monster, capped by a shocking, final action. Holding nothing back, Slaboshpytskiy isn’t shy about graphic violence, sex or anything else. His fluid, sweeping, tenacious camerawork is impressive, and yet the real point of it is to keep a viewer isolated, struggling to understand, as many deaf people, surely, have experienced.