'Silent Souls': A Dying Tribe, A Burial Ritual
Silent Souls opens with a shot of a man on bicycle, carrying two caged birds on a narrow path through a forest. He seems to be pedaling into the past, which is exactly what this lyrical Russian film intends — even if subsequent scenes feature laptops, cellphones and a shopping-mall food court where sushi is available.
The bicyclist is Aist (Igor Sergheyev), who works at a paper mill. While his world is modern, his identity is not: He's a Meryan, a survivor of a Finno-Ugric tribe native to West Central Russia. This ethnic identity doesn't affect Aist's everyday life, but still asserts itself on certain occasions. One of those is about to arrive.
When Aist is summoned to the office of the plant director, Miron (Yuri Tsurilo), the issue turns out not to be work-related. Miron's much-younger wife, Tanya (Yuliya Aug), has just died, and for Meryans, this not an milestone that can be trusted to priests and morticians.
Instead, Miron must wash Tanya's voluptuous body, decorate it in the erotically suggestive manner of a Meryan bride and take it thousands of miles to a sacred place for cremation. Aist agrees to help — not that any other answer seems possible.
Aist brings the caged birds, which are sparrow-sized buntings he just purchased, along on the quest. (No point leaving a metaphor like that at home.)
Much of the story is devoted to the preparations for the ritual, which includes Miron's recounting of his lust for Tanya. Aist, who narrates, explains that such talk is considered unseemly when a spouse is alive, but expected after his or her death. Flashbacks show aspects of Miron and Tanya's sex life, which also has a ceremonial quality to it.
They hint, too, at Tanya's interest in another man; Aist notes that the Meryans are an impassive people, except for sex. Promiscuity, he muses, is a connection to the tribe's mostly lost earlier culture.
The narrator offers a few details of his own life, mostly about his eccentric poet father, and explains Meryan folklore. Water is crucial to their culture, as it will prove to be in the film's scenario as well.
Although Denis Osokin's script was adapted from a novel, by Aist Sergeyev, the result feels more akin to a short story. Like many Eastern European arthouse road movies, Silent Souls is slow, stately and taciturn. Yet director Alexei Fedorchenko doesn't use sheer duration to immerse viewers in the spiritual journey. Not counting the credits, this beautifully photographed and quietly evocative movie is barely 70 minutes long.
Finally, something happens — an event that caps the movie, but one that seems arbitrary, an unnecessary bid to inject drama into a tale that's keyed more to remembrance than to action. Silent Souls successfully conveys the poetic fatalism of Meryan culture, yet ultimately oversells it.
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