Aleksei Fedorchenko bewitches and beguiles with his lyrical meditation on the passage of time, the festival favourite Silent Souls (Ovsyanki, 2010). Lonesome middle-aged man Aist (Igor Sergeev) is called up by his boss, Miron (Yuriy Tsurilo), whose wife Tanya (Yuliya Aug) has just died, asking him to help give her a tranquil send-off becoming of their adherence to Meryan, an ancient, mystical civilisation. Two birds that sit in a cage for the duration of their road trip serve as a potent metaphor, reflecting the men’s own slavery to a disparate tradition, and to the fog of death that permeates every minute of their meandering journey.
The Meryan regard to death proves more natural and philosophical than our own, demonstrated as Aist and Mirion calmly strip and wrap Tanya’s body, rather than calling the authorities and requesting an autopsy. Without state interference, the goodbye between husband and wife feels more intimate, if also fraught with questions. Fedorchenko’s gorgeous camerawork evokes a poetic style, though the truly disarming element here is the peculiar cultural traditions, namely the treatment of the dead, one of the few remaining ties between these men and their fading lineage. What works is how these behaviours make us question our own, particularly our fearful attitude to death, treating it like a contagion; here, it is simply a part of life.
Some of Silent Souls’ other ideas – chiefly that to drown is to achieve immortality – might not be quite as convincing, but there is a disturbing beauty to their words nevertheless. That said, the spare approach will evidently not be for everyone; long sequences of silence will require the viewer to punctuate them with their own meaning, and this of course will not suit all tastes. Insightful voiceover narration, however, guides us through the confounding cultural nuances to the revelatory and eventful climax, while well-placed flashbacks develop the characters surprisingly well for a slight arthouse film running for just a mere 78 minutes.
There is an overarching exasperation with faith that permeates throughout Fedorchenko’s meditative work on life, love and death. The ambiguity of its nature is reflected in the film’s own mysticism, ending on a haunting note that in less hands might wound up simply grim. Soulful and absolutely unique, Silent Souls represents some of the most imaginative storytelling that world cinema has to offer.