There’s one very unusual feature to Ukrainian writer-director Myroslav Slaboshpyrskiy’s debut feature: it’s wordless, though not soundless (there’s plenty of ambient noise, though no music), and in a startling way. Set at and around a boarding school for the deaf in Kiev, the film offers dialogue that’s entirely in sign language, which is not subtitled. So as would be the case with a silent film without caption cards, the viewer—unless he can read sign himself and knows Ukrainian—will have to depend on the characters’ gestures and expressions to follow the story.

That sounds more difficult than it actually is: so long as you’re attentive, what’s happening is fairly clear—indeed, given the simple plot trajectory it’s obvious—even if some details may remain opaque. Indeed, to be blunt one of the film’s defects is that it italicizes actions through repetition—it includes so many long shots of people walking through hallways that if some were removed or shortened, little would be lost and the 130-minute picture could be brought down to a more manageable length. Other sequences are long shots of people milling about aimlessly for long stretches of time; one set at a line of folks waiting to apply for visas to Italy seems to go on forever, to little point, and the same goes for an interminable scene in which five characters set around a desk, eating and drinking while the two girls among them change clothes (something almost everybody in the film does repeatedly). To be fair, another such sequence—in which a girl visits an abortionist—goes on for a very long time with an unmoving camera as well, but in that case the effect is harrowing rather than tedious.

Of course, the technique of long, steady widescreen images punctuated with occasional tracking shots (and, in the sex scenes, compositions that adopt an ostentatiously painterly shape) has an aesthetic purpose, drawing us into a world in which we’re outsiders struggling to penetrate a foreign environment. And despite the resultant longueurs “The Tribe” is certainly a dark and powerful portrait of the grim goings-on within a school where violence plays a far greater role than education, told in a fashion that can’t help but fascinate.

The narrative, such as it is, is told through the figure of Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko), a newly-enrolling teen whose introduction to the place is ours as well. Sergey briefly attends a class where the students don’t seem to be learning much, but the real instruction comes later—from his classmates, who in actuality form a gang who shake down the other students and sneak out at night to carouse and rob random victims along the streets and on trains, and to pimp out the girls at a nearby truck stop. And the gang isn’t composed only of students: the shop teacher (Alexander Panivan), a bald bruiser, is one of the ringleaders.

Sergey has to go through a bout of hazing, in which he has to defend himself against a physical assault by members of the tribe, but once he proves his mettle he works his way up the leadership ladder, reaching the position of chief truck stop pimp when his “boss” dies in an unfortunate but understandable accident on the job. In that role, however, he becomes infatuated with one of the girls (Yana Novikova), and they have sex. His possessiveness proves his undoing: when he tries to prevent the gang from sending the girl to Italy, presumably so she can make more money there, he tries to stop her from leaving and suffers expulsion from the tribe as a result. But Sergey wastes little time in exacting a terrible retribution.

Slaboshpytskiy fashioned his script for “The Tribe”—a feature follow-up to an earlier short film called Deafness”—on the basis of personal experience. He’s not deaf himself, but studied at a school in Kiev directly opposite a school for the deaf, and participated in clashes between students from the two campuses. He was also a crime reporter for a while, and what he saw on the beat also found its way into the screenplay. The result is a story of brutality and hopelessness told on a microcosmic scale that reflects on the miseries of the country as a whole in the post-Soviet era. The Kiev locations—including the school where the director actually studied—evince a brooding, grimy quality that suits the narrative perfectly, and the austere style of Valentyn Vasyanovich’s camerawork gives everything a darkly mythic feel. The cast of non-professionals obviously throw themselves into their roles with a degree of intensity that’s almost feral, which is precisely the idea.

Purely as narrative “The Tribe” is pretty conventional—the story of a fellow initiated into a criminal gang who ultimately breaks with it, suffers the consequences and turns to revenge. It’s the uniqueness of setting and the unusual form in which the story is told that make it exceptional. And while that puts special demands on viewers, those willing to immerse themselves in such an uncompromising environment will find the experience a haunting one.