RATING |

We tend to crave dramas that bring us right into the heart of the action, close to the players, cheek-to-cheek with the lover, toe-to-toe with the fighter, face-to-face with the victim.

The payoff from them is immediate: We get a jolt, an emotional high, a moment of cathartic release. We're then free to disengage from the movie and go on with our lives.

Then, there are works such as The Tribe, a stunning examination of teenage cruelty, exploitation, and crime that refuses to give us the satisfaction of identifying with the characters.

Unnerving, radically uncomfortable to watch - especially for those brought up on Hollywood fare - Ukrainian writer-director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy's feature debut uses a dizzying array of devices to force us to witness the story's thicket of bewildering events and tragedies from a great distance.

Set at an underfunded, bleak boarding school for the deaf that's controlled by a gang of vicious teenage bullies, The Tribe unfolds entirely through sign language.

There are no subtitles. The only way we can tell what the cast of nonprofessional actors are saying to each other is to interpret the action and emotional context.

We enter this harsh environment through new student Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko), a stoic teen beset by the gang from the moment he enrolls. He is put through a hazing ritual and inducted into the tribe's way of life - robbing townsfolk, dealing drugs, and forcing the female students into prostitution.

If the language barriers weren't enough, The Tribe alienates the viewer further through its camera work: While a typical American blockbuster crams in dozens of close-ups into a single minute, Slaboshpytskiy's film features virtually none.

Instead of rapid rock-and-roll zooms and edits, the camera is stationary, capturing the scenes in long takes shot from a considerable distance.

The Tribe has no soundtrack music. The fights are realistic, awkward, and short-lived, and the criminal acts so matter-of-fact, they are all the more chilling.

The story line is pointedly predictable and sleazy: Sergey is accepted by the tribe but manages to retain his capacity for love and compassion, traits his fellow thugs cannot tolerate.

Slaboshpytskiy seems to be telling us working-class youth in today's Ukraine have little choice but live predictable, sleazy lives.

The Tribe is relentless, and at 132 minutes, it can be an ordeal. This is not exactly a fun movie.

Like a production by the great Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht, The Tribe doesn't allow us the relief of catharsis. We must think our way through it, to reflect on the social reality it captures.

Embrace it as a great work of political critique, or reject it as a form of aesthetic bullying; there's no denying The Tribe is a powerful provocation.

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