MY DAD was a sign language teacher, and growing up, my parents would speak sign language at the dinner table when they didn't want me to know what they were talking about. Whereas I saw two people speaking a foreign language, The Tribe director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy apparently saw "a miracle... [people] directly exchanging feelings and emotions without words."
That's how Slaboshpytskiy described watching kids at a school for the deaf line up across from his own school in Ukraine, and that became his inspiration for The Tribe, which is, yes, a two-hour-plus movie told entirely in sign language with no subtitles (on the plus side, it has a decent amount of teen sex, and a 69-ing scene I would describe as "strangely tender"). It's the kind of bold (some might say gimmicky) decision the festival circuit rewards—as evidenced by The Tribe's truckload of awards, from Cannes, AFI, etc.
The buzz-generating capabilities of Slaboshpytskiy's choices are self-evident, but if the question is whether they make The Tribe better, I'm not convinced. Certainly it's unique the way certain plot points become clear only in retrospect (in a story about a new student at a deaf school who gets drawn into the wood shop teacher's organized crime and prostitution ring), but by the end we're left with only broad strokes, still wanting details.
Each scene in The Tribe consists entirely of a single shot, and the constant tracking movements and lengthy static camera takes have a trance-like effect. But there are times the long takes go directly against the realism Slaboshpytskiy is trying to create, like during a gang fight that looks... well, like a fake fight (it's hard to make a fight look real using a single camera angle, a long take, and non-professional actors). Or during a gynecological exam, when all I could focus on was where the actors were actually putting the instruments.
Watching The Tribe makes me want to read more about The Tribe (what kind of sign language were they using? Where did the director find the actors? Are there really deaf mafias?), but at a certain point, you wonder whether you're getting more out of the articles than the movie itself. The Tribe's formal choices end up resonating more than its story.