A road trip across time, cultures: ‘Silent Souls’ beautifully digs deep into past
"Silent Souls’’ is a road movie, a guy movie, a treatise on burial customs in northern Russia. Mostly it’s a sigh at the way entire cultures can slip away in the flow of time. It’s lovely and slow and melancholic and short - 75 minutes, yet you feel you’ve been gone for an epoch or two.
The hero, a solemn middle-age man named Aist (Igor Sergeev), is a remnant. His people, the Merya, are ethnic Finns who centuries ago migrated to the lands northwest of Moscow and were absorbed by Russian Slavs. Their language has vanished except for place names that hover over the map like words on tracing paper. All that’s left are a few customs they barely comprehend. Aist wants to write a history of the Merya but he keeps coming up empty: How do you memorialize a culture that no longer speaks?
One day his boss at the paper mill, Miron (Yuriy Tsurilo) - dourer than Aist, if that’s possible - comes to him needing a favor. His wife, Tanya (Yuliya Aug), has died and, rather than burying her in the ground, Miron intends to dispose of her according to Meryan fashion, with a funeral pyre on the banks of a distant river. The two men set off in an ancient station wagon, director Aleksei Fedorchenko’s camera hovering in the back seat like a fellow traveler.
Fedorchenko favors long takes where not much happens - just the slow unfurling of the Russian landscape outside the car as Aist ruminates in voice-over. “Silent Souls’’ is an archaeological dig across space rather than in time; the further the two travel into the hinterlands, the deeper they go into the past, retracing their ancestors’ steps and every so often stopping for vodka. Miron regales his passenger with smutty stories of his sex life with Tanya, and we learn this is also tradition, a way of lightening grief by sharing the most intimate details of one’s love.
The movie doubles as a practical guide to cremation - ax handles make the best material for a pyre and hard liquor is an excellent starter fluid - but it’s the glimpses of a vanished culture, such as brightly colored threads woven into a bride’s pubic hair, that stick. “Silent Souls’’ slowly circles in toward the water that will claim the wife’s ashes and that is “the dream of every Meryan.’’ It’s an old god but a forgiving one.
The director scrapes his filmmaking clean of all but the essentials. Most of what we hear on the soundtrack are Aist’s thoughts and a distant liturgical chant, as though Arvo Pärt were humming to himself the next town over. Miron flashes back to his love life with Tanya while Aist recalls his father, a half-crazed Meryan poet who, in one stunning scene, chops through the ice and commits his typewriter to a watery grave. Cultural suicide or consecration? The film hints at both.
After their funerary duties are complete, the two men go to the nearest town and visit the Russian equivalent of Costco, stopping for sushi in the food court, and dallying with a pair of good-time girls (Olga Dobrina and Leisan Sitdikova). Yet Aist and Miron are ghosts in this shiny, plastic modernity, knowing the water has already come for their world as it will certainly come for ours. We emerge from “Silent Souls’’ as hushed as its characters, listening hard for the tide lapping at our feet.