Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Aleksei Fedorchenko
Stars: Yuriy Tsurilo, Igor Sergeev, Yulia Aug, Larisa Damaskina, Olga Dobrino, Viktor Gerrat, Artem Habibulin.
This low-key Russian drama has been well received at a number of international film festivals, and it won the FIPRESCI critics’ prize at Venice in 2010. But Silent Souls is a film that will have limited appeal to a mainstream audience. Silent Souls is set against the background of the Merjas, an obscure and ancient Finno-Ugric tribe from Lake Nero, a picturesque region in north-west Russia. The film looks at some of their culture and traditions, which are in danger of disappearing altogether.
Written by Denis Osokin (Inzeyen – Malina) the film itself is an existential road journey that explores themes of death, grief, religion, tradition, memories, and provides some insights into the customs and rituals of this little known community in this remote corner of the world. Silent Souls also won the Best Screenplay Award at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards in 2011.
Following the death of his wife Tanya, factory manager Miron (veteran Russian actor Yuriy Tsurilo) decides he wants to take the body back to the shores of the lake where they spent their honeymoon, where he will cremate her remains in accordance with an ancient custom. Water is sacred to the Merjas. He asks his best friend and colleague Aist (Igor Sergeev, from Downfall, etc) to accompany him. Symbolically, the pair is accompanied by a pair of small, caged songbirds that Aist has recently purchased.
During the thousand mile drive, Miron shares intimate memories of married life through a ritual known as “smoking.”. Through a series of flashbacks we learn more about the relationship between the dour Miron and his much younger wife. But Aist also was secretly in love with Tanya, a guilty secret that affects their relationship. Aist acts as the narrator for this journey, and he also recalls his troubled relationship with his father, a half-crazed Merjan poet.
This is the third feature from Russian director Aleksei Fedorchenko (The Railway, etc), who works with lots of long takes and effective stretches of silence. This approach is especially evident in the scene where the two men lovingly wash down the body of the corpse. Fedorchenko’s understated and minimalist approach to the material is reminiscent of the droll style of idiosyncratic Finnish director Aki Kurismaki, as well as legendary Russian director Tarkovsky. The film itself is poetically haunting, sensual, lyrical, and bleak, with superb widescreen cinematography from Mikhail Krichman, which brings to life the stark, wintry and forbidding landscape.
Silent Souls is a deceptively simple film on the surface, but it represents an act of mourning for both the deceased Tanya and for the lost culture and traditions of the Merjan peoples. Like Rolf de Heer’s fascinating Ten Canoes, this is a film that examines an ancient culture, folklore and rituals that have almost been lost in a modern world.
Silent Souls runs for a brief 75 minutes, but its deliberately slow, ponderous pacing and melancholic mood makes it feel far longer, and it will test the patience of many.