Saturday, 5 May 2012


Icon Film Distribution
Now Showing

Whilst appearing on the surface to be an arthouse road movie, Aleksei Fedorchenko's Silent Souls is an anthropological study of, and eulogy for the Merjan culture; the Merjans being a Finnish tribe which merged with the Western Russian people some four hundred years ago, and which (barely) survives today.

The film's elegiac tone is set from the beginning by the narration of Aist (Igor Sergeev, Kelsey Grammar's Russian cousin), a man who lives alone, works at the local paper mill and melancholically recalls the past of both his family and his people.

Aist is our guide into the Merjan culture at the same time that he accompanies his employer and friend, Miron (Yuri Tsurilo), on his drive cross-country. Miron's younger wife, Tanya (Yuliya Aug), has died (how is never explained), and Miron is determined to return her body to the small town where they honeymooned, and commit her body to the water as is the custom of the Merjan people (for the Merjans there is no god, just love and water).

As the duo drive, we are treated to flashbacks of both Miron's and Tanya's marriage -- the town liked to gossip about their eccentric passionate ways, such as Tanya bathing in vodka before making love -- and Aist's childhood, marred by the death of his mother, and coloured by his father, a poet-of-sorts whose writings celebrated the Merjan way of life.

Simultaneously we're informed of Merjan traditions, such as decorating the genitalia of brides on their wedding day, and talking fondly, and explicitly, of loved ones in the hours and days between their death and cremation (a tradition ironically termed "smoking").

Silent Souls, adapted by Denis Osokin from the novel by Aist Sergeyev titled Ovsankyi (which translates as The Buntings, canary-like birds which feature in the film) is a sombre affair though not without humour and heart. And as a study of a culture I had hitherto never heard of, it fascinates.

But as fiction, it tends to drag, even at a mere 75 minutes. As informative and poetic as Fedorchenko's film is, it is lacking in any narrative or dramatic urgency. Then again, Silent Souls is a eulogy, "smoking" a culture which has all but disappeared, and thus its tendency for slow-moving reflection and introspection can be forgiven.

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