It’s not every week that a little film like ‘Silent Souls’ gets to shine. But this week distributors are keeping their powder dry – reasoning that we’ll all be too glued to the football to go out much. So much the better for this small but perfectly formed 77-minute arthouse gem from Russia: the story of two men on a road trip with the body of one of their wives in the boot (not nearly as dramatic as it sounds). A meditation on death and sex, it’s a melancholy and touchingly profound folk tale, though also deeply weird in places – pagan vajazzling, anyone?
We open with middle-aged Aist (Igor Sergeev) buying a pair of caged finches – they’re dumpy little things, but he feels drawn to them. Aist is a commercial photographer at a paper mill, whose boss, local bigwig Miron (Yuriy Tsurilo), is an old friend. When Miron’s young wife dies, he asks Aist to join him on a journey to cremate her. Together, they wash the body (with tender but workmanlike care) and hit the road. The birds come along for the ride.
In a laconic, tobacco-scarred drawl, Aist, our narrator, explains that he and Miron are members of a Finnish tribe, the Merja, who have long assimilated into Russian life; their language is gone – all they have left are traditions. Now, I can find no trace of any Merja people, and director Aleksei Fedorchenko’s last film was a mock-doc; so take all this with a pinch of salt. What’s more, the Merjan ways are whimsically bizarre. Take that pagan vajazzling: a custom in which a bride’s pubic hairs are threaded with ribbons on her wedding day. Or, as they drive, Miron engages in ‘The Smoke’, a practice in which a newly widowed man describes, in X-rated detail, sex with his wife. Aist explains all this in a deadpan fashion, with a pleasing and possibly peculiarly Slavic poetic bluntness.
Fedorchenko evokes a bleak, edge-of-nowhere landscape. But in the faces of his plain, rather frumpy characters he teases out real beauty. We watch Miron’s enigmatic wife, Tanya (Yuliya Aug), in flashback: she also works at the mill, and a glance caught between her and Aist tells us in a split second that they are in love.
In another film, we’d expect those two caged finches to be set free at a metaphorically divine moment. Not this pair; they have a macabre Hitchcockian agenda (you might find the denouement a fraction overplayed). So, if we’re meant to find any symbolism in these stout, unlovely birds, it’s perhaps that there is wonder to be found in even the most ordinary of creatures.