Aleksei Fedorchenko’s latest film, “Silent Souls,” is both silent and soulful. And incredibly Russian.
The story revolves around the ritual burial of Tanya (Yuliya Aug), the much-loved wife of the manager of a paper factory, Miron (Yuri Tsurilo).
Unwilling to involve “outsiders” in the funeral preparations for Tanya, Miron calls on his friend Aist (Igor Sergeyev), the factory’s official photographer, to accompany him on Tanya’s last journey.
The two men are Merjans, members of an ancient Finnish culture that flourished in West-Central Russia before being absorbed by the Russians in the 17th century. Their rituals are still important to the two men, however, and so they start out on their somber burial ceremonies.
Miron begins by washing the body of his naked wife and wrapping her in a blanket. Then, with Tanya in the back seat, he and Aist take off on a long journey to a lake that Tanya particularly loved. Like the Hindus, whose greatest desire is to be cremated on the banks of a river, the Merjan people also have an affinity for water in their burial rituals. And so Miron and Aist build a funeral pyre for Tanya, and afterwards distribute her ashes in the lake.
It’s a simple story, elongated by long stretches of silence as the two men drive through the dreary, rainy, gray November countryside. Miron practices “smoking” which is the Merjan custom of revealing aloud some of the most intimate moments he spent with his wife, presumably to provide him with remembered contentment and to mitigate his grief.
The film contains long stretches of empty country road, traveled for long minutes by car or by bicycle, with minimal voice-over (and English captions) to fortify the action. And yet, somehow it is compelling. You are interested and engaged by these two men in their solitary silences, their Pinteresque pauses, and their unspoken camaraderie.
“Silent Souls” is not for everyone. But it’s poetry, dark and bleak, and, as I said earlier, incredibly Russian.
“Silent Souls,” which was an official entry in the New York Film Festival, and the Toronto and Venice International Film Festivals in 2010, opens in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Theaters on Sept. 30.
Cynthia Citron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.