Silent Souls Dir. Aleksei Fedorchenko

[Shadow Distribution; 2010]

Styles: Russian folklore, road movie, culture chronicle
Others: Into Great Silence, The Sacrifice

Cinema is the most thoroughly modern (and commodified) form of ritual, a time-bound rapport between the living viewer and a material image, which itself bears a false pretense of life. It’s pretty interesting, then, that Silent Souls is a film about two men who, in response to a death, decide to take a few days’ break from the industrial world, so as to perform the rituals of an ancient culture that barely still exists. It’s a casual affair: they simply get on the road, with little fuss, sharing memories to pass the time. And though the film is conscious of the fact that it can never truly replicate the rituals of the Merjan people, its consistently elegant camerawork cannily reckons with their absence: long takes keep watch on the men as they go through various stages of preparing a body for interment, slowly pushing forward and back, as if exerting its own concentration. Fedorchenko is not really inviting us to take part in these acts so much as pointedly reinforcing how carrying out a tradition, even on a minor scale, can, spiritually, feel like a universal undertaking.

Strikingly warm for an elegy, Silent Souls is a humble road movie undermined by its own broadness; it’s more of a pleasant ride than a postcard you’ll keep forever. But its theme of evanescence suits its characters, who both experience less dramatic conflict than generous introspection. Most of the film is accompanied by a voice-over by Aist, who explains the importance and impetus behind what we see, but rarely challenges his own predetermined outlook. He and Miron, best friends, work together at a paper industrial complex. They are descendants of the Merja people, an ancient tribe that has long since been assimilated into Russian culture but whose traditions still live on in certain regions. When Miron’s wife dies, he brings Aist to the roof of the factory and asks if he would drive with him to the old village and help inter her according to the ancient rituals. But before Aist can say yes — could he say no? — Miron’s cell phone rings. Based on their unremittingly calm, resigned behavior, the men seem content enough with modern life, but they silently agree that some institutions need to be avoided, literally taking Miron’s wife’s corpse into their own hands.

Water, we are told, represents immortality in Merjan culture, and the most memorable scenes in this film are ones in which these remarkable details we hear about are either given counterpoint or put into practice. A hypnotic flashback shows us Miron undressing his wife and pouring a dozen bottles of the stuff on her nude body; later, we see the men both pouring bottles of vodka on her corpse before setting it on fire. Miron grimaces towards the camera; everything we keep for ourselves is eventually, sometimes unbearably, shared with others. But there are benefits. Earlier, Aist explains the concept of “smoke,” things that can be expressed only after someone has died, which “makes your face brighter and turns your grief into tenderness.” Miron tells Aist about how much he was sexually attracted to Tanya before and even while they were married; yet moments later, Aist admits to the viewer that he also desired Tanya, and a flashback suggests that this was very possibly reciprocated. This is all in the past, however; soon after Tanya is laid to rest, the men are propositioned by two prostitutes outside a shopping mall. “Do you want us?” they ask. “Very much,” says Miron. “We are so glad that you exist.”

Fedorchenko suggests that sex, water, and unconditional love will ultimately outlast any culture, most cannily through the image of a nude woman reflected off a hotel window, the city lights glittering in the background. But in the end, we are reminded that death repurposes everything; if our heritage goes, so do we. I admittedly rolled my eyes at the film’s final moment of contrivance, but it confirms this film’s admirably modest intentions as a fable. There may be a thin line between this world and that one, but as he does throughout the film, Aist assures us that we’ll be alright.

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