Beautifully assembled, but emotionally inert despite its focus on bereavement and love’s endurance, Russian art film “Silent Souls” reps at the very least a significant step up for its helmer, Aleksei Fedorchenko (“First on the Moon”). Story about two men on a mission to dispose of the corpse of one man’s wife according to the ancient customs of their near-extinct tribe thoughtfully mulls over questions of identity, passion and mortality through voiceover narration and stunning lensing. However, the sepulchral solemnity of the proceedings may prove too pretentious for all but the most ascetic-minded.
Aist (Igor Sergeyev) is a professional photographer and amateur writer who lives in Neya, a small town in the Kostroma region of Russia. He’s a descendant of the Merya people, a Finno-Ugric tribe that has been almost entirely assimilated by Slavs. As Aist explains in voiceover, the only remnants of their way of life are names of people and places, and some peculiar customs regarding marriage and death — vestiges of the pagan culture that was once indigenous to the region around the Volga River.
After buying a pair of buntings — small, sparrow-like birds (the pic’s original title, “Ovsyanki,” means “Buntings”) — Aist is summoned by his boss and best friend, Miron (Yuri Tsurilo), to help him carry out the funerary rites for Tanya (Yuliya Aug), Miron’s younger wife, who has just died. After tenderly preparing the body in the customary fashion, the two men set off to burn it on a homemade pyre by a nearby body of water Miron and Tanya visited on their honeymoon.
Flashbacks to often erotic moments in Miron and Tanya’s marriage, revealing scenes concerning her and Aist, and Aist’s own memories of his childhood and his bereaved father (eminent thesp Viktor Sukhorukov), are inserted into the pic’s main line of action, intermingling past and present in a way that perfectly complements the Meryan belief in only two gods: love and water. Indeed, “Silent Souls” consistently strips things down to their most basic elements, reveling in sparse landscapes, near-bare rooms and nude, unapologetically flawed human bodies. There’s great tenderness in the scene where Miron remembers pouring vodka on a ripe, naked Tanya as a kind of bibulous foreplay. That said, Miron’s spoken celebration of Tanya (“smoking,” or sharing intimate details of life with the recently deceased before the funeral, is apparently another Meryan custom) may strike a troublesome note for some femme auds.
With its long-held static shots, laconic thesping style, provincial focus and chilling spiritual undertow, “Silent Souls” looks like a lot of recent Russian arthouse films. Despite the rigor of Fedorchenko’s helming, the pic doesn’t necessarily break new ground. Its emotional content is largely theoretical, signposted by painterly compositions and wailing strings sections, courtesy of Andrei Karasyov’s solid but not desperately original score. The characters never have enough inner-life to make them truly empathetic; consequently, “Souls” will be a hard sell at home, let alone in the harsher climates offshore.