Silent Souls/ Ovsyanki
Directed by Aleksey Fedorchenko. Starring Yuri Tsurilo, Igor Sergeyev, Yuliya Aug, Viktor Sukhorukov Club, Light House, Dublin, 75 mi
THE MERYA PEOPLE were a Finno-Ugric tribe that, prior to the Middle Ages, occupied a vast wintry territory stretching from Moscow to Vladimir.
In time they were peaceably assimilated and out-bred by Eastern Slavs. Centuries on, Merya linguistics and customs retain a small, largely undocumented influence in modern Russia: girls still weave coloured threads into their pubic hair on their wedding day, corpses are still buried in Viking-friendly pyres.
These ethnographic eccentricities form the spine of director Aleksey Fedorchencko’s sublime meditation on life and death. Aist, an unmarried fortysomething photographer, is a collector of all things Meryan: snatches of poems, songs and baffling customs.
Aist is the perfect choice to accompany his boss and old friend Miron to Gorbatov, Russia’s smallest and arguably prettiest resort, where Miron hopes to bury his much younger and recently departed wife according to Meryan custom.
It’s a small premise played across a vast landscape. Mikhail Krichman, regular cinematographer for Andrey Zvyagintsev (The Return, The Banishment), hones in on marvels of engineering and the patched-up remnants of ancient Five-Year Plans – a suspension bridge fashioned from logs, rusty yet ergonomically sound industrial staircases – as the two men make their way toward the Oka River.
No film since There Will Be Blood has offered such a tactile world. As the men drive and prepare for the ritual, Miron “smokes”, a Meryan concept that entails an outpouring of reminisces. Somewhere, in this stream of consciousness, we realise that Aist had his own complicated feelings for Tanya, Miron’s late wife.
Film fans may remember the snarky headlines in 2010 when Silent Souls, a favourite to win the Golden Lion at Venice, lost out to Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere. The jury, scandalised industry watchers noted, was headed up by Coppola’s ex-squeeze, Quentin Tarantino. We’re not saying the Reservoir Dogs director is fallible. But leaving Silent Souls to make do with a Golden Osella for best cinematography and a Fipresci award is, perhaps, on the wrong side of erroneous.
Long before the caged birds travelling with Aist and Miron step up and take on a narrative significance, there’s something compellingly dark and deep about Silent Souls. The geography is Russian but the topography is decidely Freudian. The performances are pitch perfect. The culture is fascinating. See it. See it. See it.