Two men, a woman, two birds, a car, the long frozen road ahead and traditions dating back thousands of years. The synopsis of this film could seems somewhat familiar. Yet if you go to watch Aleksei Fedorchenko's Silent Souls expecting your average, run-of-the-mill road movie you will be pleasantly disappointed. Why? Well, for starters the woman accompanying the two men is dead and this film, its characters, and the traditions of the Merja people in Russia make for some unusual cinematic companions, all travelers on a road to nowhere.
Any film that can boast a line of dialogue like "if your soul hurts write about the things around you" is my kind of film. But beyond the haunting images, the silent languid shots, the cryptic conversations, the smoky-toned voiceovers and the withdrawn individuals that together conspire to make Silent Souls an unforgettable film, Fedorchenko also introduces his audience to the fascinating culture of the Merjans.
The Merja people descend from an ancient Finno-Ugric tribe, are not part of the Slavic people who inhabit most of Eastern Europe, and originally hailed from a region in West-Central Russia, near the Volga. Their ancient traditions and myths are still alive and well in the few remaining modern Merja people, even if they have now assimilated into Russian life. Their language is all but lost, yet a few terms and proper names remain. Merja women were described as exalted and beautiful, of mythical personal strength, so much so that if a Merjan village was attacked, the women made themselves drown in the river with their jewels and children, in order not to be subjected to robbery or despoiling.
To the Merjans, water, along with love, is God. And it is exactly through a voyage to water, to find a final resting place for Tanya -- Miron's beloved, and very recently deceased younger wife -- that this unusual trio comes together in Silent Souls, completed by the photographer Aist who brings along his own Greek chorus of sorts in the form of two buntings. While my soul could find some familiar imagery in the cremation sequence by the river, reminiscent of the Ghats of Varanasi alongside the Ganges, I certainly could not see the end scene coming! Far be it for me to ruin it by giving anything away, but I sat paralyzed in my seat for a few minutes as the credits rolled on, washed over by the film's enchanting soundtrack. The cinematography by the brilliant Mikhail Krichman made sure certain images from the film are bound to stay with me forever.
I have to admit that my very recent discovery of filmmaker Fedorchenko points only to my own ignorance when it comes to Russian cinema. He's been celebrated and awarded for his past films, which include a "mockumentary" of sorts titled First on the Moon (Pervye na Lune), a film that won top documentary prize at Venice in 2005. I first watched Silent Souls during the sizzling July heat wave in NYC and the film's frigid surroundings, solitary stillness and frozen aloofness transported me to a place where love and melancholy live side by side, like a sad poem by William Butler Yeats.
The film opens in NYC on September 16th and in Los Angeles on September 30th. Check out the Silent Souls trailer below.
Top image courtesy of Shadow Distribution, used by permission