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THE TRIBE (Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, 2014)
“The Tribe” is a brilliant film set in a Ukrainian school for deaf teens

The best movies where no one says a word

Studio Ghibli’s ‘The Red Turtle’ is to hit UK cinemas soon, a film with no dialogue at all – here we round up the best movies where silence is golden

In Studio Ghibli’s new movie, The Red Turtle, it’s man versus nature and, more crucially, screenwriter versus dialogue. Not a single word is spoken in Michael Dudok de Wit’s 2D fable, and for once, anime fans won’t have to pick between subtitled or dubbed screenings. Instead, the animated tale – a giant turtle prevents a shipwrecked guy from escaping an island – complements its exquisite visuals with a sparse soundscape, and is all the better for it.

Subsequently, as a viewer, you pay attention to each scampering crab and the swaying of the ocean; you let the meditative score wash over your mind and transport you to the sandy setting; you may also find it harder to ignore the person eating popcorn in the row behind you, but you can’t have it all. What’s more, the elusive narrative allows your imagination to run free. The film seems to touch upon familial pressures. It’s certainly about nature. And if you’re a sicko with no grasp of metaphor, it’s a dehydrated dude getting it on with a dead reptile. But without expository dialogue, it’s all up for interpretation.

Though directors claim to be primarily visual storytellers, it’s actually quite rare for a movie to be completely wordless. Ryan Gosling still mumbles 17 sentences in Only God Forgives, and slightly more in Drive, while Will Smith is his usual chatterbox self in I Am Legend, despite being completely alone. But when a film resists traditional dialogue (I hear that La La Land is vastly improved by hitting the mute button) it can often be special. Here are the very best of them.

THE TRIBE (Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, 2014)

Set in a Ukrainian boarding school for deaf teens, Slaboshpytskiy’s gripping crime-thriller is told entirely in sign language and presented without subtitles. For most viewers, this entails playing detective with body movements and deciphering what each gang is plotting. Often, the characters are several steps ahead of the viewer (unless you’re proficient in Ukrainian sign language); on occasion, they’re oblivious of the warning sounds of a reversing truck. Either way, it’s a fascinating one-off, and the story itself pulls no punches with its tale of corruption, prostitution and exceedingly messy murders. Will there ever be a subtitled version? Slaboshpytskiy told us: “No, not even after my death.”

KOYAANISQATSI (Godfrey Reggio, 1983)

Philip Glass’s music tends to be preferable to most conversations, and Reggio confirms it with his wordless documentary exploring the destructive nature of mankind. In Koyaanisqatsi (Hopi Indian for “life out of balance”), all that’s heard is an ethereal score by Glass, and all that’s seen is a series of images. The camera glides over deserts, soars through rainforests and, inevitably, gets sucked into the pollution of congested cities. The tone poem’s influence looms large today – Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women pays homage to the time-lapse footage – and serves as a reminder that human beings wrecked a wonderful world. No voiceover is required to get that across.

ALL IS LOST (J.C. Chandor, 2013)

Like The Red Turtle, Chandor’s wordless thriller tosses a man into the ocean and gets its kicks from watching him squirm. For nearly two hours, the action consists of Robert Redford – the sole onscreen character – attempting to fix his sinking boat, while indifferent fish and crabs ignore his plight. What keeps the film afloat is Redford’s drained facial expressions and improvised handiwork; at times, it’s like watching an artist whose tools all happen to be on deck. No backstory, no volleyball called Wilson – just a pure tale of survival and a lesson in converting seawater to something drinkable.

DAFT PUNK’S ELECTROMA (Thomas Bangalter, Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, 2006)

For much of Electroma, the only sound is the footsteps of two Daft Punk robots (actors, not the real DJs) marching through a desert in pursuit of… well, it’s not clear, because no one says anything. The film, a thematic tie-in with Human After All, is essentially Gus van Sant’s Gerry with less talking, more helmets, and a 70s-heavy soundtrack (Brian Eno, Todd Rundgren etc). Still, only Daft Punk could make – or at least get away with – Electroma, which boasts its own Being John Malkovich moment when America is revealed to be overrun by Daft Punk doppelgangers.

HOMO SAPIENS (Nikolaus Geyrhalter, 2016)

Geyrhalter’s haunting documentary consists of long static shots of abandoned architecture – it could be a derelict cinema in California, or evacuated parts of Fukushima – with only the echoing sounds of the room for accompaniment. There are no humans here, just evidence they once existed. Featuring occasional cameos from birds and sometimes bits of litter blowing in the wind, the eerie film envisions a calmer, more peaceful world without mankind. Then you notice the moss invading the buildings and rain dripping from the ceiling, and suddenly it’s clear: these are slo-mo action shots of nature reclaiming its planet.

MOEBIUS (Kim Ki-Duk, 2013)

A wordless family-drama featuring castration, incest and knife-assisted orgasms? It could only be Ki-Duk. In Moebius, the Korean filmmaker tops his violent reputation by removing any dialogue and thus amplifying the irrationality of human impulses. Take the first 10 minutes: a mother catches her son masturbating, and so she slices off his penis and digests it raw – it’s disturbing enough on its own, but without a verbal exchange it’s harrowing. (Not that an apology would have healed things.) From there, it gets more extreme – yes, really – and all without a shred of dialogue, just moans of discomfort and occasional pleasure.

GIRL WALK // ALL DAY (Jacob Krupnick, 2011)

Set entirely to Girl Talk’s mash-up album All Day, Krupnick’s 75-minute music video is a wordless love triangle that unfolds among unsuspecting New Yorkers. A sugary rush from start to finish, it was shot without a permit and stars a trio of dancers – The Girl, The Gentleman and The Creep – who stylishly make prats of themselves in public. Plus, it’s all choreographed to hip-hop: check out The Girl quitting her ballet class to “Move Bitch (Get Out the Way)” and throwing a strop to “Hard in da Paint”. And if, say, you’re more into Soulwax than Girl Talk, at least there’s bonus entertainment in observing the perplexed strangers in the background.

THE LAST BATTLE (Luc Besson, 1983)

Let’s be honest, no one watches Besson’s movies for the dialogue. So it plays to the cinéma du look maestro’s strengths that his black-and-white debut, The Last Battle, imagines a post-apocalyptic environment whereby humans can no longer physically speak. What these survivors do instead is combat for food and water, all without dropping any lame one-liners or shoehorned monologues that parrot the director’s political beliefs. Redolent of a silent movie, the sci-fi can feel old-fashioned when the quirky score kicks in, but the 35mm shots of a desert wasteland hint towards a director with eyes on bigger, wordier blockbusters.

JUHA (Aki Kaurismäki, 1999)

Kaurismäki (aka Jim Jarmusch without the A-list actors) may be famed for his films’ deadpan conversations, but Juha breaks away from tradition by presenting itself in black-and-white and with its brief dialogue spelled out in intertitles. The Finnish auteur has experimented with silence before, though, primarily with the wordless opening of The Match Factory Girl, and here Kati Outinen once again stars as a woman wronged by the men in her life. As part of the exercise, Kaurismäki is less comedic than usual, but his ever-present esoteric trademarks (dive bars, a supporting role for his dog etc) compensate for the lack of droll musings. 

IN THE CITY OF SYLVIA (José Luis Guerín, 2007)

Though there is a brief moment of dialogue – to say more would be a spoiler – Guerín’s audacious walkathon is, for the most part, a thirsty dude’s wordless wander in search of a woman he met a bar six years prior. The tension, then, if you can call it that, lies in the delicate soundscape and how conversations fade into the background; any of these people could be Sylvia, and you end up scrutinising the surroundings for clues. That said, not only does the guy possess the traits of a stalker, he’s also a total weirdo – who walks around that long without plugging in earphones?