'The Tribe' (unrated)

A controversial troublemaker at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, The Tribe is one of the most shocking tales of organized crime ever to reach the screen. Its depictions of violence, sex and a truly excruciating abortion sequence go too far, according to many. Even the film’s gobsmacked admirers acknowledge the exploitative edge to the worst on view, and the escalating brutality of its plotting. Yet this is a feature film debut of real distinction.

We’re inside a boarding school for the deaf, somewhere in Ukraine, which makes the story’s underworld gangster milieu all the stranger. The latest, roughly college-age student to arrive, Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko), carries a suitcase in one hand and a backpack on his stoop-shouldered back. Right away Sergey meets the bad apples in this untended orchard. The Tribe concerns his initiation into the school’s criminal element, his affair with the gang leader’s lover and the bloody aftermath.

Alexander Dsiadevich is memorably seedy as the underworld ringleader, pimping out female students (Rosa Babiy and Yana Novikova) to truck drivers, extorting and battering his fellow deaf and mute boarding school residents at will. Sergey can take only so much before he retaliates. There’s an inky-black comic touch in the way writer-director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, working in tandem with cinematographer Valentyn Vasyanovych, sets up and executes his lengthy, stealthy tracking shots. There are no startling close-ups for emphasis, no quick cuts to heighten the tension.

The Tribe creates its own brand of tension out of silence, though the film is anything but quiet. It begins with a whoosh of traffic noise, and halfway into the film (at 2 hours and 12 minutes, it’s a bit protracted) one character’s inability to hear an approaching semi becomes a key turning point.

The actors’ sign language is unaccompanied by onscreen subtitles. We’re often left in the dark about the argument or the negotiation at hand, but never for long, and never without a cold dread about what’s around the corner for Sergey. The Tribe is an audacious and successful gamble from a first-time feature filmmaker who is now officially on his way.

Cast: Grigoriy Fesenko, Yana Novikova, Rosa Babiy, Alexander Dsiadevich, Yaroslav Biletskiy.
Writer-director: Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy.
A Drafthouse Films release. Running time: 132 minutes. Extended scenes of explicit sex, nudity, graphic violence, gore, strong adult themes. Not suitable for viewers under 17. In Miami-Dade: Miami Beach Cinematheque; in Broward: Cinema Paradiso Hollywood.