It appears that my cinematic nation of choice at the moment is Russia, and my latest review once again deals with a film from that country, the very well received “Silent Souls” by director Aleksei Fedorchenko. However, unlike the previous two films by Andrei Zvyagintsev (“The Return” and “Elena”), “Silent Souls” did not blow me away. Do not get me wrong, it is a well made film, but it just didn’t capture me as well as the other two.
The story of “Silent Souls” is a simple one, as it is about a man whose young wife has just passed away, and along with a fellow workmate they take the journey to cremate her body and dispose of it in a body of water. This is in line with the ancient rituals from the town that they come from that had once been discovered by the Finns, and while on the journey, the husband participates in other customs created for the recently deceased and the grieving family. While helping out his boss, Miron, the workmate Aist remembers the time he performed the same rituals for his mother (who died in childbirth) and his stillborn sister back when he was a child.
Right from the first scene of the film it is made obvious that it is going to be about looking back at the past and reflecting on it. This is shown from a shot that shows what Aist has just left behind as he is riding his bike, rather than showing what he is riding towards, we are witness to what he has just left. The entire function of the ritual seems to be a chance to reflect on the loved one who has just passed before life continues without them. It also gives the mourner a sense of closure and a chance to move on. What is special about “Silent Souls” is the fact that the ritual is played out in meticulous detail and we appear to be witness of every second of it. This is the part of the film that I found mesmerizing because it was from a culture so unlike my own. The body is prepared in the same way it would be if it was being ready to be married, so the body is washed, and then the most peculiar aspect, when different coloured threads are tied into the young lady’s pubic hair. At this moment we get a flashback of this ritual being performed when Tanya is being readied to wed. After the couple is wed, the threads are removed and tied together and then tied to a special tree where they stay. Like I said, it is very strange, but interesting none the less. Once the body has been washed, it is put into the car and the journey begins in earnest, where Miron then proceeds with something that is called “smoking”. This part of the ritual is where the deceased’s loved one tells stories about them as a couple that are quite sexual in nature. These are the stories that would never be mentioned to anyone when the person is alive, and are the most personal between the couple, but it is accepted to tell these stories after the person has passed and before the body is cremated. So for the entire car-ride Aist listens to these stories from Miron, who tells them in a very matter-of-fact manner, and Aist listens like it is normal every day conversation. Occasionally Aist’s mind does drift as he remembers his own mother’s ritual, and these moments are very beautiful as well.
Like the title suggest, this is more a film of actions rather than dialogue, and the majority of the film is dialogue free. This means that our actors must rely much more on their emotions in their performances and both Yuriy Tsurilo as Miron and Igor Sergeev as Aist do wonderfully well. However due to the theme of death and the feeling of melancholia that permeates the entire film, it is never a very fun experience to watch. Interesting, yes and even mesmerizing in parts, but it is never fun. However the film does have a lyrical beauty to it, and this is helped enormously by Mikhail Krichman’s brilliant work as cinematographer, whose familiarity with working with Andrei Zvyagintsev on his features would no doubt have helped with the incredibly long and difficult takes that are within “Silent Souls”. While his work is beautiful here, the shots are not as dynamic as the ones he has created previously for Zvyaginstev, but then again this is not that kind of film, the visuals do not draw attention to themselves despite how well done they are. Because the film relies heavily on the visuals to tell the story, the music that plays over these images are equally important and while I have mentioned many times I know little about music, I must admit that I was not really a fan of Andrei Karasyov’s score, in fact it kind of grated on me, which is unfortunate.
Overall, while I liked “Silent Souls” to a degree, and certainly respect the level of filmmaking required to make the film, it didn’t stand out to me. Performances are all good, and the meticulous nature towards the tiny details in the film are all positives, but the entire atmosphere of death and melancholy suck the enjoyment out of the film. The other problem I had with the film was that some plot points weren’t fully explained (I couldn’t work out if Aist and Tanya had an affair, or if Tanya just had an affair with some stranger). Still it is worth looking at, as it is an interesting look at love and the increasing loss of a culture, and the ending is incredibly haunting.