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