Dir. Aleksei Fedorchenko, Russia, 2010, 75 mins, in Russian with English subtitles
Cast: Yuliya Aug, Larisa Damaskina, Olga Dobrina
Review by David Morrison
A Russian film evoking the remnants of the ancient pre-Slavic Merja culture doesn’t exactly sound like a recipe for success. Yet surprisingly, this offbeat, contemplative and curiously cinematic road movie lingers long beyond its short 75 minute running time.
Director Aleksei Fedorchenko conjures a world in which those distantly descended from the long departed Finno-Ugric tribe, the Merjans, are able to recognize one another by a common bond, despite appearing as everyday Russians. Notwithstanding the modern world’s encroachment, they still observe a few remaining myths and customs, and what follows is a culturally tinged lament for lost traditions, the mourning of loved ones, and memories of the past. The film is complicated, however, by the fact that Fedorchenko may simply have invented these traditions, and yet this never detracts from the emotional pull. Whilst there are other issues to explore – for instance, the fabricated nature of any custom or tradition – the film nevertheless wants these Merjans taken straight. Their pain is real and their sense of loss no less valid.
Silent Souls is pensively narrated by Aist, an official photographer for a paper mill in the small town of Neya, who hopes to restore something of the vanishing Merjan culture. When the wife of his boss Miron dies, the two friends embark on a road trip across the bleak expanses of central Russia in order to dispose of her body according to Merjan custom. Joining them in the car are two caged bunting birds, the Russian equivalent of sparrows. As they journey Miron takes part in a tradition known as “smoke”, whereby he imparts to Aist details of his conjugal life with beloved spouse Tanya.
Whilst at first Miron’s intimate revelations seem crude, this Merjan practice helps the men turn grief into tenderness and, as they near their destination of a sacred river, both remember past experiences with Tanya, revealing that Aist too may have felt more than just friendship for the departed. On reaching the river they build a funeral pyre to cremate the body and scatter Tanya’s ashes to the water. But their journey isn’t over. Love and water are the spiritual agencies presiding over Merjan lives, and Aist and Miron seem irrevocably drawn by these forces.
Silent Souls is rich in imagery and allusion, with water and bridges play a recurring role, yet transparent metaphors are happily resisted. Even the significance of the birds is left opaque – do they represent the souls of unnoticed ancient Merjans, or do they relate to Tanya’s personal circumstances, loved, but needing set free? The answers remain implied rather than overtly stated, and Silent Souls presents a complex, richly textured evocation of a mythical realm, forgotten by most, yet still existing alongside the mundane everyday.
Mikhail Krichman’s beautiful and startling cinematography creates a bleak but vivid landscape, with curious and memorable images emerging, such as a typewriter being dropped through a frozen surface. There is a dreamlike quality to the film that allows it to flow gently onward, much like the rivers with which it is filled. There is too a melancholic, poetic bent that extends to the film’s depiction of women, again strikingly depicted. Their bodies are imbued with a mysterious power, whilst at the same time appearing very ordinary. Languorously paced scenes of Tanya’s ample body being washed in preparation for the journey, or the gentle rhythms of two prostitutes, side by side with shoulders and faces filling the frame as they near a climax, are unexpectedly captivating.
With its measured pace, unusual ethnic subject matter and themes of death and mourning, Silent Souls may be a tough sell. But this is a film of quiet pleasures that holds rewards for anyone patient and willing enough to let the film drift over them, that slowly immerses us in its characters, moods and world, and takes us to hidden depths.