out of Five
Running time: 77
Grief in cinema is often lazily expressed with sobs and tears; not so in Russian director Aleksei Fedorchenko's elliptical, lyrical road movie which features exquisite Tarkovsky-esque cinematography roaming through remote Russian landscapes, making it a visual delight.
What’s it all about?
“Our people are a bit strange,” warns narrator Asit about the Merjans - an ancient Slavic tribe now assimilated into Russian life, but who guard their traditions fiercely. Middle-aged factory worker Asit is called upon by his boss Miran to go on a road trip to help bury Miran's wife Tanya according to old Merjan customs; as they drive to the sea director Fedorchenko acquaints us with these now forgotten ways of life. We watch Asit and Miran dress Tanya's body, learn about her relationship with Miran (a Merjan means of handling grief whereby the bereaved details intimate scenes from their life with the deceased), and also how Merjans' have a deep relationship with water and always commit their dead to liquid graves.
Heavy narration is often the kiss of death (unless you're Terrence Malick) but here Fedorchenko puts it to good poetic use, intermingling Asit's fascinating insights into the Merjans’ ancient rites with the solemn burial journey. As the film progresses and switches between present and past, it becomes stranger and stranger, with weird marriage rituals and watery burials. But the film's bewitching and mournful atmosphere, as well as it's compact running time, ensure it never outstays it's welcome or veers into self-indulgence.
Grief is handled here in a such a restrained and unusual way that is rarely seen in cinema; indeed the film seems as much to lament Merjan culture as it does Tanya herself. Western life seems very, very far away, yet when we arrive back in recognisable civilization, as the two men walk around a shopping mall, this world seems somehow even stranger.
However the films' cinematography is undoubtedly its greatest draw: the Russia viewed through the car window is a stark and lonely but mesmerising place, shot in the film’s drained, sombre palette, and the Merjan obsession with water also allows for some spectacular vistas of rivers and the sea.
Silent Souls is a beautiful musing on grief and forgotten traditions infused with lyricism and melancholy.