A white guy, a black guy, and a middle-eastern guy walk onto a subway. No, that’s not the beginning of an old joke, but rather it is the beginning of Tribes, directed by Nino Aldi. This Neapolitan crew boards the subway with a single objective in mind: rob the passengers for all they’re worth. It’s like an old-fashioned train robbery, but with fewer monocles and the faint smell of urine.
All is going according to plan until the black guy quietly decides to pass over a couple of his “people,” to use his words. The middle-eastern guy notices this and takes issue. If the black guy doesn’t rob his “people,” then the middle-eastern guy won’t rob his “people,” either. Of course, when the white guy hears this, he refuses to steal from any of his “people.” As you can see, these tribal stands threaten to put a damper on payday. What to do, what to do.
How this head-scratcher gets itched is something I’ll keep to myself, because it’s the punchline that keeps on giving. In describing what makes Tribes work so well, I’ll avoid using the word relevant, because it’s been in a lot of mouths lately and I don’t want to touch it. Still, I will say that the short film is the only movie in recent memory to fully satirize the culture’s going vice: tribalism. Tribalism makes evolutionary sense because it offers safety in numbers and a sense of community, which makes it the only logical choice for individuals who might be incapable of maneuvering the world by their own merits.
“…rob the passengers for all they’re worth…the black guy quietly decides to pass over a couple of his “people”…”
But in its modern, internet-metastasized form, tribalism leads to group-think. Group-think is intellectually crippling, but quite handy for the incapable individuals, as it means they no longer have to learn new things. They only need to know their tribe’s static conclusions, so grasping the nuances of other individuals is unnecessary. Tribal status is all that matters, which usually labels others as strictly an ally or an enemy.
While tribes can be used for good, they tend to be based on the idiotic and the absurd. That’s where Tribes finds the funny. The three would-be crooks try to steal as much money as possible without betraying their self-imposed tribal alliances, and the results would make the Three Stooges shake their heads in disbelief. It’s a near-perfect parody of a primal impulse that’s on the front page of every newspaper, whether it’s spelled out or not.
Big ideas aside, the three lead characters are played by DeStorm Power, Adam Waheed, and Jake Hunter. Each of them is very funny, finding a perfect rhythm of the scripted jokey banter. The actors also sell the urgency with which they initiate each progressively dumber idea in a believable if ridiculous manner.
If the culture’s aversion to individualism has you down, Tribes will remind you that the sane still walk the earth, and they’re not afraid to poke the big, stupid bear that’s fallen asleep on our collective chest.
Tribes screened at the 2020 Santa Barbara International Film Festival.