Look no further, the sleeper of the year has arrived. Aleksei Fedorchenko’s Silent Souls is a sparse, beautiful film filled with the bare, frozen landscapes of west-central Russia, and rough-hewn characters that hold the viewer spellbound. Cinephiles will recognise the atmosphere of an Andrei Tarkovsky film with its scenes of mesmeric dilapidation, but this is also a road movie as never seen before.
Aist (Igor Sergeev) works at a paper factory in the provincial town of Neya. He takes photographs, both for pleasure and as part of his job. In a voiceover he tells us about his people, the Merjans, a ancient Fino-Ugric race with cultural beliefs that contain traces of the animistic, shamanistic practices of the past.
As Aist photographs the faces of the factory women, it is as if he is creating an anthropological record of Merjan types, in anticipation of their eventual extinction.
Buried under years of Soviet greyness, the Merjans have poetic souls. They recognise only two gods: Love and Water, although it often seems they barely draw a distinction between water and vodka.
Aist’s boss, Miron (Yury Tushina), calls him into his office and tells him in a matter-of-a-fact manner that his wife died last night. Will Aist help him with Tanya’s body? Yes of course. The two men go back to Miron’s house, wash the corpse of blonde, chubby Tanya (Yuliya Aug), and set off on a long drive to dispose of her earthly remains.
Their actions could hardly be more prosaic. We never never learn how Tanya died – she was alive, now she is dead. As they drive, Miron boasts about his sexual exploits with his dead wife, but this is a kind of tradition, called “smoking”. For much of the time they remain silent, with commentary provided by Aist’s voiceover. Flashbacks show us moments of Miron and Tanya’s marriage, and Aist’s childhood memories of his father, a crazy poet.
This strange, phlegmatic pilgrimage is an act of love, whereby Miron will commit his adored wife to the elements, ensuring the immortality of her soul. Aist loved Tanya too, and Miron accepts this as a fact. Shortly after the makeshift ceremony they meet a couple of girls, and we witness one of the strangest sex scenes in the history of motion pictures.
The central symbol of the film is a small cage with a pair of buntings – small Russian birds related to sparrows. Aist carries these birds in the front seat of the car, where their chirruping often provides the only distraction from of the silence that prevails between the two men. The original title of the movie is Ovsyanki, the Russian name for these small birds. The characters in this film are comparable to the birds – forces of nature in held in cages of convention.
In a typical road movie, such as Wim Wenders’s Kings of the Road, characters set out on a quest that invariably turns into a form of self-discovery. Usually they are fleeing from the empty routines of their lives, symbolically freeing themselves from inertia and spiritual stagnation.
Fedorchenko takes us on a different sort of journey. His travellers are completely immersed in the cultural certainties of the Merjans. They see the humdrum town where they live as a spiritual homeland which they leave only to return Tanya to her own roots. They carry with them a set of unshakable beliefs, a deep-seated confidence in the healing powers of Nature. This is conveyed not merely by a succinct, excellent script, but by skilful cinematography, by turns sweeping and intimate; and a subtle musical score with echoes of Arvo Pärt or Giya Kancheli.
At 75 minutes this is a very short film, but it feels like it could go on for hours without ever letting our feet touch the ground.
Silent Souls, Russia, rated M, 75 mins
Published by the Australian Financial Review, May 19, 2012