The National Catholic Review

I saw Alexsei Fedorchenko's extraordinarily lovely, if melancholic, Russian-language film, Silent Souls, on the same day i attended a funeral for a fifty-five year old Down syndrome friend, the brother of a good friend. Eulogies at funerals rarely touch me much but the four given for Jimmy Powers did-- his innocence; his persistence and loving waving and saying hello to everyone; his perpetual smile and joie de vivre; his nicknames for the people he liked; his constant proposals of marriage ( often to women already married!). Listening to those eulogies, I was reminded that when someone we love dies, a piece of us dies with them. Something precious is lost which will never really be experienced or seen again. When, we might ask, shall we ever meet or know such another ?

     Silent Souls is, at one level, a lyrical road movie but it is also part ethnography, part ritual, filled with metaphysical memories and meditation. Indeed, rarely would I ever think of a movie as essentially a kind of meditation. Roger Ebert said of the film that, when he first read a description of its rather vague plot and minimal character development, he was not, at first, drawn to the movie. Later, upon seeing the film, Ebert remarked: " Not often have I been more deeply touched." The film resonates with an universal experience of saying goodbye to loved ones and also watching the culture of one's youth erode away to be never quite again recaptured.

        The two chief protagonists of the movie, Aist and Miron ( both workers in a paper mill where Miron is the boss), stem from an ancient Finno-Urgic culture, the Merja, whose homeland lay near Lake Nero in West Central Russia. Years previously, the Meryans amalgamated with the Slavs. Not much of their language or old customs remain, except their form of burial ritual. In the film, Miron's younger wife, Tanya, dies. He asks Aist ( the film's narrator) to help him prepare Tanya's body for the eventual cremation near a lake where Miron and Tanya had their honeymoon. Aist had bought two birds, buntings, once sacred to the Merja culture. He brings them along on the several day road journey. In earlier episodes, we hear Aist speculate about what of their customs and sense as a distinct people has been irretrievably lost and what, if any, of them might ever be revived. He is a sort of archeologist. But, first, he and Miron carefully and lovingly bathe the corpse, fill it with many colored threads put on a bride's body by her women friends before she gets married ( she is buried as a bride) and then drive through a vast open country to her final resting place.

       The dialogue is relatively sparse. The chirps of the buntings provide a kind of background music while Miron and Aist travel and we gaze on the passing vast landscape. In a sense, the cinematography makes one feel we are inhabiting a day dream. Not for nothing did the film win the best cinematography critics' award at the Venice film festival last year. In Meryan culture a grieving spouse must engage in what is called " smoke", i.e., a frank conversation where he or she shares with a friend intimate details of his or her sex life with the beloved. To share such intimacies outside the death ritual or with anyone, besides this one chosen friend and witness to the grieving, would be considered wrong. But it is called for in the death ritual. In point of fact, the flashbacks of Miron and Tanya in erotic love are not the least bit offensive. They are fond and loving and presented, themselves, as a kind of ritual, shown with a tender camera's eye. In one scene, the husband carefully washes and bathes his wife's body all over with vodka before making love to her. In another, Tanya's women friends prepare her for the marriage, putting colored threads around her body.

       When they reach their destination, Miron and Aist carefully prepare the bier and lay Tanya's body with great affection on it and set fire to it. Then, the resulting ashes are thrown into the lake. In Meryan culture one also buries, in ice, other objects particularly closely connected with the one who has died. One scene ( depicting the death of Aist's alcoholic poet father) shows Aist casting his father's beloved typewriter under the ice. In the course of their time together, Miron lets Aist know that he, Miron, knew that Aist also loved Tanya ( who also worked in the paper mill and was closer in age to Aist) and that he was never jealous.

       The Meryan culture, originally, lacked any high Gods or a distinct notion of immortality. Aist asks Miron if he hopes he might some day see Tanya again. Miron admits that he has no special reason to expect that that will happen but it would be his devout wish. Toward the final moments of the film, the buntings break loose from their cage and the two drivers careen, in an accident, off a bridge back into the same waters which feed the lake of Tanya's final resting place. The narrator evokes those lovely Pauline words, so consoloing for many, at the goodbye rituals after the death of a loved one: " Love never ends."  " Love never truly dies".

        As I have mentioned, the movie is more a meditation about the sweet sorrows of parting with a loved one than a closely contrived story with plot and character development. But, I strongly agree with Roger Ebert: " Not often have I been more deeply touched"     

John A. Coleman

Comments

C Walter Mattingly | 1/19/2012 - 3:36pm
Thank you, John. I hope the movie is as good as you portray it here. As good as your essay.

Craig, that was some movie. The rock that fell out of the father's hand at the end. But I haven't been able to eat fried chicken from a KFC bucket since.

Fr Malloy, thank you for making this essay available. What a father. What an acceptance of what seems such an unfairness, an evil even, which he so graciously transfigures into an awareness, on our part, of the magnificent gift he experiences, in joy and grief and, above all, with gratitude.  

I've sent this page, including the commentary, all over the place. It does America proud. 
Rick Malloy | 1/14/2012 - 5:25pm
John's beautiful post calls to my mind this moving essay of a father and his son.
*******************

Who Am I Lord, That You Should Know My Name?  by Bruce Lawrie
Portland  Magazine Summer 2009  http://www.up.edu/portlandmag/2009_summer/whoami.htm
My six-year-old son and I share a nightly ritual, just the two of us alone in the fading light of his bedroom. Matty, who is severely mentally retarded, loves routine because life comes at him as if blasted from a water cannon, the millions of sights and sounds we all unconsciously assimilate every second of every day an undecipherable roar. Even more than most children, Matthew craves the safety that comes from learning the rhythms of his life, thrives on repetition. And of all his daily routines, winding down to bedtime might be the best. For a few minutes every night, I can turn down the white noise for him and help him ease into the peaceful joy of drifting off to sleep. We start out sitting on the floor with his favorite board book about monkeys drumming on drums, dumditty, dumditty, dum, dum, dum…The book is worn with love, all four corners gnawed off — Matthew chews up books the way other kids do grilled-cheese sandwiches, starting at the corners and working his way to the center. As we reach the last dumditty on the last page, he lets out a sigh that tells me everything’s right in his world and he’s looking forward to climbing into bed.
I rise to my feet and begin singing, Lord, I lift your name on high...as I reach down to help him into bed. He’s unable to walk on his own but he can aim himself in the general direction of the bed. He knows where this is heading and he’s ready for it. He pauses at the bedside to feel the blankets and pillow for a moment as if to make sure the bed is still stationary. Legally blind in one eye, he’s learned that things have a disturbing way of disappearing right when you’re ready to lean on them. But, as always, he finds the cool sheets safe, slings a skinny leg over the bed, and hauls himself up on top, moving rapidly before the bed can escape. He lies on his back rocking back and forth in bed, body rigid, a crease-eyed smile lighting his face, letting out an ecstatic aaahh.
I turn out the light and kneel beside his bed in the dark room, still singing, you came from heaven to earth...
Matty holds his arm out in my direction, a tentative groping for me in the sudden blackness. I wrap his hand in mine and press it to my face. I start singing the next song in our nightly rotation as I brush his hand against my whiskers, first his palm and then the back of his hand. He explores my face with his fingertips and then he covers my mouth gently. I sing into his palm, imagining the reverberations vibrating down into his little soul. How does he experience me? What am I in his world? I don’t know. I may never know.
I keep singing. Only you can look inside me...
Who will care for Matty when I am gone? Who will keep him safe? Or maybe I’ll outlive him. Many children like Matthew don’t live out a normal life span. Would it be better if he went first? As is often the case with Matty, I don’t have the answers. What I do have, though, is this moment in the dark with him, his soft hand gently brushing my lips, the source of the soothing song, the same song he’s heard nearly every night of his six years on the planet. Those hazel eyes of his which so seldom look into mine are easing shut.
Who am I, Lord, that you should know my name?
I finish the song and stand up and wonder what heaven will be for my son. Maybe it’ll be a place a lot like here, a place where his own son will run from him across a wide open field of green, every nerve-end in his little body singing, where afterwards, Matty and I can tip back a beer together at a pub. Where he has a healthy body and a lovely wife and our family can linger long over pasta and homemade bread and salad and red wine. Where his son, my grandson, will fall asleep in my lap, a sweaty load of spent boy pinning me to my chair on the deck, the night sounds stirring around us, the stars rioting in the dark sky.
I look down on Matty’s peaceful sleeping face. So often peace has eluded him: the operations, the I.V.s, the straps tying his hands to the hospital bed rails so he wouldn’t pull the needles out, the countless blood draws when they couldn’t find the vein, all the insults descending out of the blue onto my little boy who couldn’t understand why the people around him had suddenly begun torturing him. But he is at peace right now. And a time is coming when he will have peace and have it to the full. And all the other things he’s been robbed of. Meeting a girl. Playing catch with his father and his son. Making love. Calling his mother’s name aloud. Talking with his twin sister. Eating a pizza. Drinking a beer. Running. And I’ll get to be there with him. God will carve out a little slice of eternity for us, our own private do-over where the breeze carries the smell of fresh-cut grass, where the sky is bluer than you ever thought it could be, where the air feels newborn.
Soon, Matty. Soon.
Bruce Lawrie (lawriescruz@yahoo.com) is a writer in Scotts Valley, California. See beautiful-catastrophe.com.
Craig McKee | 1/14/2012 - 2:35am
I had similar feelings when I saw the 2008 Japanese movie DEPARTURES (Okuribito).