by Michael Koresky
Dir. Alexei Fedorchenko, Russia, Shadow Distribution
Thereâ€™s a voiceover buzzing through Alexei Fedorchenkoâ€™s brief, impressionistic, and sentimental Silent Souls, and itâ€™s eager to tell you how to absorb what youâ€™re watching. The voice belongs to Aist, presumably a constructed cinematic alter ego of writer Aist Sergeyev, whose novel The Buntings provided the basis for the film. And thereâ€™s no denying the novelistic approach the film takes to its storytellingâ€”it relies heavily on its narrator to inform the viewer of the significance of its environment and history. Fedorchenko seems to have been concerned that otherwise we might not be persuaded of the magic inherent in the traditions of the people at its center: the Meryans, a Finnish-Ugric tribe assimilated into Russia for hundreds of years who nevertheless maintained a spiritual connection to their ancestry through rituals and language. In this bleak drama of love after death, two contemporary Russian men of Meryan descent enact an ancient funereal rite of passage on a devoted wife. Thereâ€™s an undeniable dramatic thrust to the tale, but the film is too impressed with its own elegiac minutiae, and so convinced that its audience will be awestruck by its charactersâ€™ resolute adherence to a departed way of life, that it leaves viewers as little more than passive observers.
With its impressive (and self-impressed) camerawork by current feted star cinematographer Mikhail Krichmanâ€”whose exacting, evocative photography on Andrei Zvyagintsevâ€™s The Return convinced many that the film was something more than a hoary father-son parableâ€”and mournful soundtrack of choral wails, Silent Souls all but begs to be called poetic; but itâ€™s too precious and over-aestheticized to convince as art, and certainly too corny to allow comparisons to Tarkovsky, which has nevertheless not stopped some critics from doing just that. This is Fedorchenkoâ€™s third film, but first to play in the U.S., and itâ€™s easy to see its appealâ€”as a hermetic exotic object. It borrows the vernacular of the contemporary art film (long takes, slow tracks and zooms, an â€śuncompromisingâ€ť fixation on ungainly naked flesh) but does so gingerly, without risking viewer alienation. For less adventurous festival-goers itâ€™s the perfect antidote to this yearâ€™s other Russian breakout, the superlative, troubling My Joy; unlike that film, Silent Souls builds a microcosm that, although set today, circumvents contemporary Russian reality by paying tribute to a marginal past.
Set in central western Russia, on the Neya River, a tributary that is one of the Meryansâ€™ connections to its heritage, Silent Souls begins as Aist (misty-eyed Igor Sergeyev)â€”fortysomething, unmarried, a paper mill manager and poetâ€™s sonâ€”is summoned by his friend Miron (Yuriy Ysurilo) to help take care of the body of his beloved, deceased wife, Tanya (Yuliya Aug, excellent at playing dead). This is no mere corpse disposal; rather itâ€™s the beginning of a journey to return Tanya to a place of spiritual purity, to connect her with her forebears by not interring the body in contemporary fashion but following age-old Meryan traditionâ€”she will be burned on a pyre at the beach, her ashes tossed into the water along with Mironâ€™s wedding ring.
A long sequence in Mironâ€™s apartment of the two men scrubbing Tanyaâ€™s hefty nude form in preparation for the passage, her long hair unspooling at the top of the bed, the camera gradually tracking in and out as gray afternoon light spills in through the windows, announces the filmâ€™s aesthetic intentions fairly clearlyâ€”it also establishes the filmmakers and authorâ€™s odd relationship with the female body. As an entity onscreen, Tanya is either a flaccid, naked lump or, as a memory, a mute, sexual beingâ€”in one wistful reminiscence Miron pours an entire bottle of vodka over every inch of her generous disrobed flesh, in another she masturbates under her skirt for her husbandâ€™s viewing pleasure. Later, Miron shows Aist an encounter awkwardly captured on a palm-sized camera: sheâ€™s grabbing a staircase railing as Miron mounts her; we learn that this sort of sharing between men about a loved one whoâ€™s passed away but whose body is still on earth is called â€śsmokeâ€ťâ€”more commonly known to us as bawdy bar talk. Full-frontal female nudity abounds, not only with Tanya (whose body is also used to demonstrate the Meryan ritual of tying colorful threads to a womanâ€™s public hair at marriage and death), but also two quiescent girls the men pick up in a fruitless attempt at post-funeral sex.
Many will argue that the filmâ€™s sexism remains safely protected by the filmâ€™s nonjudgmental depction of Meryan tradition. After all, one of the many tiresome homilies we hear from Aistâ€™s narrator during the course of the film is that â€śa live womanâ€™s body is also a river that carries grief awayâ€¦ itâ€™s a shame you canâ€™t drown in it.â€ť But Silent Souls has no interest in finding out who Tanya was, let alone critiquing or questioning the way of life it so enthusiastically dramatizes: itâ€™s an oddly incurious portraitâ€”an assemblage of symbols rather than people. (Fedorchenko seems more genuinely fascinated by the two buntings that flit around in a cage always by Aistâ€™s side, next to the passenger seat like Tippi Hedrenâ€™s lovebirdsâ€”seemingly every other shot in this seventy-five minute film is trained on these feathered friends.) Silent Souls is ultimately about Aistâ€™s loneliness, and his melancholy, stoic witnessing of a love he wishes he could have shared. After all, we are told that â€śa Merjan doesnâ€™t have God; we only have love for one another.â€ť Itâ€™s a statement that makes Fedorchenkoâ€™s cold, omniscient approach seem all the more inappropriate; the only love on display in Silent Souls is in the filmâ€™s regard for itself.