A man and an old friend journey to cremate his late wife, sharing the stories of their sexual history and moving through the motions of an ancient burial ritual, forgotten by most of their kin. Silent Souls gives us a look into the intimate and poignant act of remembrance, the final rite of a dying culture that shaped the men’s lives and, unbeknownst to them, will come to shape their deaths.
Director Aleksei Fedorchenko crafts Silent Souls with the sensitivity and empathy needed to convey the profundity of grief. There is no hysteria, no dramatic display of emotion; this story is one of quiet, deep-seated pain. He captures the essence of the Merja people with great depth of emotion, explaining their customs as we see them unfold, describing the worship of their two Gods: love and water, and discussing the assimilation of their culture during Slavic rule with a sense of sad resignation.
The journey starts from the point of view of the companion, Aist (Igor Sergeyev), purchasing two bunting birds as pets, to cut the eternal silence he lives in. He explains not understanding his attraction to these plain birds, simply feeling that they have some meaning to him. After being approached by his friend Miron (Yuriy Tsurilo) at work, who explains that his wife Tanya (Yuliya Aug) died in the night, the two men embark on a drive to the sacred Lake Nero, where, according to Merjan law, the bodies of their loved ones must return to in order to be free.
Fedorchenko perfectly choreographs the act of preparing the body for burial. As is done on the eve of their wedding, a dead woman’s body must be washed by loved ones and her pubic hair must be braided with colourful threads, presenting the groom with the gift of his bride’s love and chastity. Miron and Aist slowly and lovingly adorn Tanya’s body according to tradition, showing the tender and irreplaceable connection between a man and his much loved wife.
The most unusual part of the rite is the act of ‘smoking’, when the husband of the deceased must share stories of their conjugal life as a way of replacing grief with nostalgia, keeping the body alive until it is cremated and spread into the water. Through both Miron and Aist’s narratives of Tanya’s married life, it becomes apparent that Miron loved his wife more than she ever did, and that he was not the only admirer that Tanya ever held close.
The quiet monotony of the journey is interspersed with flashbacks of Aist’s youth, focussing on the complicated relationship he had with his father, a poet who became more and more erratic after the death of his wife during childbirth. Aist’s dissatisfaction with life and naturally poetic manner is linked to this relationship, with the Tanya’s death disturbing his forgotten grief, and stirring his desire to put his life onto paper.
The ancient traditions of a dying civilisation are comically punctured with a stop off at a shopping mall for sushi, with the infamous golden arches visible in the background of the food-court, further emphasising the commercial dilution of this once-revered city and presenting us with the reality that the young in this town have well and truly forgotten their unique past.
Silent Souls is indeed the story of two silent and greatly pained souls that share their last moments with the lake they revere so greatly. Subtle acting and free-handed direction makes this film ideal for those who appreciate honesty and frankness of emotion. Even though he fails to keep the momentum moving in parts, overall Fedorchenko manages to sustain a perpetuated sense of sadness throughout the film, creating what is undoubtedly one of the most poignant depictions of basic human emotion in modern cinema. This is a film that once seen, is not easily forgotten.