Aleksei Fedorchenko’s Silent Souls played last night at the 48th New York Film Festival. The film is currently without distribution.
Weather does most of the heavy lifting in Silent Souls: remote Russia in a permanent November, endless hills and woods blanketed in cold and wet, with the occasional footbridge undulating over a river, or old temple barely visible through the mist, and often framed through rain-streaked car windows, for an extra sense of benumbed remoteness. It’s easy to mistake the film for an exquisitely morose journey through the chilled and ancient soul of Russia—except that most of what fills the screen is so painfully, self-seriously inane.
Vague Kelsey Grammar lookalike Aist (Igor Sergeyev), a poet, accompanies local boss Miron (Yuriy Tsurilo, looking like the duck-painting husband in Fargo), back to their ancestral homeland with the ritually prepared body of Miron’s dead young wife. Aist is a poet tied closely to the traditions of Russia’s largely homogenized Meryan people; the book is adapted from Aist Sergeyev’s novel Buntings, and retains rather too much of Aist’s voiceover, explicating not just Meryan traditions but also plainly self-evident narrative developments and emotional cues. The buntings, birds Aist buys in the film’s opening, are repeatedly revealed to us as symbols of a long-gone youth spent steeped in irretrievably tradition.
Fedorchenko maintains an elegiac tone appropriate for flashbacks of Miron’s married life, Aist’s childhood, and Meryan practices—notably the elaborate, deliberate construction of a funeral pyre on the clumpy sandy banks of a river, and the dispersal of the ashes into the water, which carries everything away. But proceedings are also raptly hushed as Miron takes a single, meditative bite at an ice cream cone, and Fedorchenko milks lyricism from Aist and Miron’s side-by-side banging of two hookers, one fat and one lean. All scenes are equally slathered with a soundtrack of mournful, wordless singing—there’s no conflict between lost ritual and modern convention, just endless wailing and frequently goofy grief. While Aist waits in the car, Miron, in the throes of anguish, attacks a birch tree on the side of the road. Slowly, somberly, it crashes to the ground.