The passage of time is a crazy thing – it has the ability to swallow up not only whole lives, but entire civilisations and cultures. In Silent Souls, by our sheer bemusement at much of what is going on, director Aleksei Fedorchenko illustrates this with a beautifully calm, trained eye.
When lonely middle-aged man Aist (Igor Sergeev) receives a call from his boss, Miron (Yuriy Tsurilo), that his wife Tanya (Yuliya Aug) has died, the pair embark on a quest to give her a tranquil final resting place. Living in Russia’s town of Neya, the two identify themselves as belonging to the ancient Meryan peoples, and their adherence to the traditions therein informs the entirety of their road trip.
Bringing a pair of birds along for the trip, they sit in their cage and serve as a metaphor, for the two men are similarly confined by both their anachronistic faith in derelict traditions, and the spectre of death that lingers throughout their journey. Combining these two pervasive forces proves telling – rather than alerting the authorities, their beliefs see them stripping Tanya’s body and wrapping it, with Miron lovingly brushing her hair. Rather than yearn for an autopsy as our own society says we should, Meryan culture seems to allow a man the right to bury his wife without interference. As they prepare her body, it is a quiet, solemn scene, albeit one which raises a few questions – namely, how did she die so young?
While Silent Souls has visual flair to spare, much of the film’s splendour comes from observing these odd cultural flourishes that will be completely alien to most viewers, such as a marital tradition that involves tying threads onto the pubic hair of a bride-to-be. In the present, their treatment of the dead appears to be a final vestige connecting them to their fading culture.
There are many customs presented here which prove thought-provoking with regard to our own treatment of death. The idea of talking candidly about a dead partner’s sexual proclivities, purportedly turning grief into sadness, might not be something we can immediately identify with, but it proves an arresting notion all the same.
There appears to be a more natural, philosophical regard to death here – they drive past a police checkpoint, and defying our expectations, are waved through despite a cop clearly seeing the corpse. Acceptance to them is key, in the face of our more clinical approach, which treats death with a fear as though it can be caught. It would be easier to dismiss these foreign notions were they not so poetic; the idea that drowning is a measure of achieving immortality is at once disturbing and beautiful. Naturally, to do so voluntarily – as Aist’s own father attempts in flashback – is immodest and will not work.
Few will argue with Fedorchenko’s visual persuasion, though the lyrical, ambling style will surely not be to all tastes. Long, silent passages are frequent, and those unable to extrapolate a personal meaning from it might struggle with this. Just when it appears too spare, though, voiceover narration – which proves uncommonly unobtrusive – adds insight, guiding us through the Meyra’s peculiar habits, and leading us to a certain sting in the tail waiting at the denouement. Judicious use of flashbacks helps to fragment the narrative a little, observing Miron with his wife prior to her death, providing little hints at the drama that is to follow, and suggesting secrets which inevitably emerge in the climax.
Fedorchenko capitulates the inherent frustration with faith and its ambiguous nature, as the characters head towards a chilling end, which reminds us of love’s power in the face of everything else which, inevitably, must end.
A disarming tableau about life, love and death, Aleksei Fedorchenko’s lyrical drama is soup for the soul.
Silent Souls is on limited release from Friday.