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Jefferson Root Written by Jefferson Root
Sep. 29, 2011 | 6:41 PM

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Not being an ornithologist, I was unfamiliar with the bunting bird, two of which play a prominent role in Aleksei Fedorchenko’s new film Silent Souls.  To Fedorchenko, this Russian equivalent to the American sparrow was so significant that he named his film Ovsyanki, the Russian word for the birds.  To the rest of us, the birds are the first glimpse into a strangely beautiful forgotten culture.  Many of the details in Silent Souls will be unfamiliar to American audiences, but for adventurous filmgoers willing to get into its rhythms, the film exerts a hypnotic pull.

Focusing on a region of Central Russia whose people, the Merjans, had long been assimilated, first by the Slavs, and later the Russians.  In spite of this, the film’s protagonists, Miron and Aist, do their best to keep Merjan cultural rites alive.  When Miron announces that his beloved wife Tanya has suddenly died, he asks his best friend Aist to accompany him on a journey which will end with the two of them giving Tanya a Merjan burial.  Aist agrees, provided he can bring along the pair of Bunting birds he’s just purchased. 

Death and loss are Fedorchenko’s themes here, both with regard to Miron’s loss of his wife and the larger loss of the Merjan cultural identity.  The film’s press notes admit that the Merjan culture has been essentially dead for so long that what Silent Souls portrays is an attempt to create a mythology out of the culture’s few known facts.

On that score, Fedorchenko’s film succeeds beautifully.  Filled with lush cinematography of the stark Russian coastline, the film draws the viewer in until they feel that they too are part of this sad journey.  Along the way, as per custom, Miron offers up to his friend intimate details of his relationship with his departed wife.  As the two friends build an even closer bond along the way, certain secrets come to light which only add to the melancholy purpose of their trip.

Fedorchenko tells much of the story in flashbacks, from both men’s perpspectives.  For Miron, these mostly involve his time together with Tanya, for Aist; the landscapes recall similar journeys taken in the past with his father, an eccentric poet.  All of these sequences enrich the mythology and help to draw the viewer into what’s left of the rich Merjan culture.  A pagan culture which predated the Russian Orthodox Church, the burial rites focus on the natural elements, especially water.  For a Merjan, the reverence for water is so high that drowning, becoming one with the water, is considered the ultimate end.

Yuri Turilo as Miron and Igor Sergeyev as Aist both find just the right tone in their roles, and the cinematography by Mikhail Krichman is never less than stunning to behold. Whether it’s the sight of Miron giving his wife a vodka bath, or seeing Tanya surrounded by her bridesmaids on her wedding day, Silent Souls is filled with striking, surprising images. Fedorchenko directs with a sure hand, and never loses control of the film’s fragile, melancholy tone.  As for those bunting birds, let’s just say that they turn out to have some Merjan notions of their own. 

Silent Souls opens Friday, September 30th at Laemmle’s Music Hall 3 in Beverly Hills.  In Russian with English subtitles.

Silent Souls trailer (English Subtitles) from Shadow Distribution on Vimeo.


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