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August 15, 2022


“The Tribe” is a recent Ukrainian film, a winner of numerous awards at various festivals, including the one in Cannes. The first unusual thing is the cast: the actors, just like the characters they are performing, are deaf-mute. The film has no lines, therefore: the characters only communicate in sign language. It is not a mute film, nevertheless, although the expressivity specific to these gestures hints to the aesthetics of the beginning of mute cinema. In this case, usual noises are not missing, showing that the issue in this case is not the lack of communication, but the diversity of language. Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s film is a shady parable, sort of a “Clockwork Orange” in a minimalist aesthetics, not the baroque style that defined Kubrick. In a school for deaf-mute children, a gang of students had imposed their power by robbery and prostitution. With the help of a schoolmaster and of the school van, attacks are organized upon the elderly in the city and two female colleagues are forced to prostitution in a van parking lot. In the remaining time, the members of the gang dominate their colleagues in the boarding house by an alternation of peddling and terror. The aesthetics of the film is remarkable and innovative, and manages to concentrate a generalized violence into the everyday image of a trivialized hell. This dystopia presents a peculiar world, animated by a particular logic, such as the society of blind people in Ernesto Sabato’s novel “On Heroes and Tombs”.

What is this film actually about? We might be tempted to believe, by example, that it is a parable of contemporary Ukraine, of a society undermined by an insidious dynamic of violence. The war itself cannot be explained only by political-cultural fractures; an additional ingredient is needed: the fatal disintegration of the state, that leads to a deactivation of the usual mechanisms of regulating conflicts. When the dose of corruption, illegitimate violence and exploitation is dominating, a parallel system takes the place of legitimate institutions. It happened in Russia, too, after the USSR collapsed, and authoritarianism and new economical dirigism of Vladimir Putin’s regime were the only ones that managed to replace the confusion of the 90s. In Ukraine, oscillation between the East and the West maintained the Post-Soviet crisis. The truth is that the former Communist countries have a history of double Communist experience, that still reveals itself. The film thus depicts, quite suggestively, the deep reality of a Communist society, where not only the state was fundamentally repressive, but the society itself was affected by the metastases of micro-violence, of the parallel subsistence  economy, based on corrupting agreements that create extreme vulnerability to detoured institutional mechanisms. In other words, based on the parable’s special force of expression, the film convincingly illustrates the moral promiscuity of the regime.

But we may also suppose that the film refers not only to a weak state and to a society demolished by crisis. The mere comparison with Kubrick’s film proves that the aimed phenomenon is not encompassed historically and politically. The parable may also refer to the profound dehumanization induced by the functioning of a closed system, that cancels intimacy and crashes the emotional potential of human relations – everything is subordinated to power and consumption. It is nor for the first time that such institution reflects in cinematographic language a perverted and demonized human universe. And the only unpredictable element is, similarly to other cases, love – let us remember, in another registry, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel “We”, that inspired Orwell for “1984”. This time, a newer member of the gang – although already initiated in the dynamics of crime – falls in love with one of the girls he is helping to prostitution. This time, nevertheless, the denouement is a mere exacerbation of violence. Actually, it is the only chance in history that a regime of terror, that seems to continue endlessly, would stop: self-destruction.

Another registry the film be interpreted in is the crisis of language. Words – an essential human “invention” – cannot be replaced by gestures, without losing something essential. Without words – especially in a metaphorical sense – the human relations change and become disabled.  Even eroticism – initially focused, metaphorically, in the figure of the price of prostitution, wrote on a piece of paper, for customers – although managing to enhance a sensuousness that also includes sensitivity, suffers of the lack of words. This is why it is unable to save humans.

In another dystopia, “Fahrenheit 451”, authorities are struggling against books. And people attempting to survive learn by heart the major books of humanity. Because, in the lack of words, regardless of culture and wisdom, humanity cannot find redemption.


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