Smoking, burning, and buntings on a doomed road trip
In Alexei Fedorchenko’s exploration of Slavic melancholy Silent Souls, two glum, hulking middle-aged men go on a sad ritual journey. Aist (Igor Sergeyev), who was burdened by an “odd” poet father ( Viktor Sukhorukov), and his recently widowed friend Miron (Yuri Tsurilo) — as much a friend, anyway, as their glumness allows — get together to take the body of MIron’s dead wife Tanya to the edge of Lake Nero in West-Central Russia to stage a do-it-yourself cremation and drop her ashes in the water nearby where the couple went on their honeymoon. It’s a custom of the old, and vanishing, Finno-Ugric tribe from which the two men are descended.
The voiceover by Aist, who brings along his recently purchased pair of caged buntings on the trip, tells us a lot, but Fedorchenko doesn’t show us much. It’s all about the dying rituals of Merja culture. Aist and Miron are both Merjan. They also look very much alike. It would be nice if you could tell them apart better. Flashbacks do give them separate experiences: but how are they any different now? Miron liked to bathe his young wife Tanya (Yulya Aug) in vodka before sex (her body and especially her breasts are impressive in this ritual). Before he and Aist take the now-deceased Tanya on her last journey (no word as to how and why she died), Miron wipes her naked body with a cloth as Aist does further preparations to one side. How can one help just wondering how Ms. Aug put up with this, and made her body look floppy enough to be that of a woman recently dead? (Rigor mortis she doesn’t attempt.) Custom also requires tying multicolored strings on the dead wife’s pubic hairs, as is done for a bride in Merjan culture. And then we get a look at young women thus preparing a bride.
Sex continues to be a focus on the trip when Miron “smokes,” local lingo for the custom, as Aist again helpfully explains, of revealing intimate details about the couple’s love life, okay, even somehow desirable, to do, now that her soul has departed. What would Tanya say? But the women in the film are stolid. Aist is a photographer at the factory where Miron is a manager, and we see a succession of blank female faces early on as he snaps ID photos of new employees. One or two screw up their faces a bit, but unlike the chirpy buntings, they emit not a peep. Fedorchenko likes head-on shots: he gives us a lingering one of a blond boy (Ivan Tushin), the young Aist (though it is impossible to see traces of him in the older one), who listens to his father’s poems and accompanies him on an inexplicably penitential water burial — of his most prized possession, a small typewriter, sacrificed in midwinter. The boy pulls the typewriter out on the ice on a little trolley. Another ritual, this one presumably however not time-honored Merjan custom but the whimsy of scenarist Denis Osokin, or of Aist Sergeyev, whose novel The Buntings Osokin adapted for the film.
Then there’s more sex after the cremation. Aist and Minon stand on a desolate bridge, and two women come up with the opening line, “Do you want us?” They do.
The film drops hints of excitement and revelation — of a sudden storm out of nowhere full of jealousy, discovery, and sudden violence. When Aist’s voiceover says “Little did we know that this was a trip from which we would never return,” there seems, for a while anyway, real hope that Fedorchenko will stop lecturing us on Merjan folklore and tell a good story. There is a hidden menace in the similarity of the two men and their lack of a real connection. Aist might be some ectoplasmic enemy, a doppelgänger along to punish Minon for being such a dolt. Instead, alas, what happens is that the buntings who have been chirping in their cage, cooperative actors ready for any role, turn into the trigger of a final, sodden tragedy. It’s all very mournful, and very Russian, I guess. But it just seems like photography with rambling talk, atmosphere waiting for the show that never starts. The photography is handsome, but Leslie Felperin’s verdict in Variety that the film is “beautifully assembled, but emotionally inert” is totally justified. Felperin is also right to note that Andrei Karasyov’s “wailing strings sections,” constitute “a solid but not desperately original score.” In fact this film threatens to fade quickly in memory into other less-than-memorable recent Russian arthouse films, most of which at least had more appealing central characters.
The 75-minute film Silent Souls (entitled Ovsyanki or “Buntings” in Russian, like the novel) was seen and reviewed as part of the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, September 2010. This is Fedorchenko’s third feature, and was a selection shown a little earlier at Venice and Toronto.
DIRECTOR: ALEXEI FEDORCHENKO
WRITER: DENIS OSOKIN
CAST: YULIVA AUG, IGOR SERGEEV, VIKTOR SUKHORUKOV