A ritualised mourning for a lost civilisation, Aleksei Fedorchenko’s Silent Souls is a poetic stream of images and ideas.
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers.
Adapted from his own novella, Denis Osokin’s screenplay for Silent Souls contains much of its literary beginnings. Bachelor Aist is a writer. And while he works as a photographer in a local factory, it’s his poet father’s typewriter rather than a video camera that ends up at the bottom of a frozen lake. The film’s refusal to update its bookish bent with a more cine-literate vibe lends Silent Souls a fittingly quaint backwardness. Which isn’t to say that Aleksei Fedorchenko’s film isn’t cinematic; it certainly is. It’s beautifully shot, delicately acted and startling in its folkloric images of the rites and passages of a dying Merjan culture. But it’s this nostalgia, inherited from the source novel, that creates a free-flowing river of poetic images.
The film’s Russian patronym Ovsyanki translates as Buntings or Yellowhammers – a titular accomplishment which gives the caged birds present in almost scene much more significance than the more wispy melancholia of Silent Souls. According to Fedorchenko, they’re common, barely noticeable birds, with a latent but untried talent for singing. Like Aist and his friend Miron, a factory owner whose wife Tanya dies and whose cremation ritual the men partake in, hidden poets of a lost age in a sea of grey modernity. These avian witnesses, often centre-screen, are also linked to the dead; in Miron’s nickname for his dead wife ‘Bunting’ and in the two yellowhammers who appear in a tree on the riverside as they set light to her funeral pyre. In a Hitchcockian twist, their barely contained, otherworldly presence is unleashed in the final reel, sending the protagonists to a watery death, which in Merjan culture isn’t exactly unwelcome.
There’s a very Russian yearning for death running through Silent Souls, both in Miron and Aist’s literal preoccupation with it and its rituals, but also in its representations in the fictional Merjan culture. Their folkloric rituals – “smoking” about the dead, a fond retelling of memories which turns grief into tenderness, washing the corpse in vodka, tying ribbons to their pubic hair in an echo of the rites of a wedding celebration, or burning the body on the side of the lake Miron and Tanya visited for their honeymoon – create a sacred link to death; the dead woman’s spirit only unhooked from life when her ashes return to the life-giving River Oka. Both Aist and Miron, grieving the loss of wife and lover, crave a reunion with Tanya in death, just as the Merjans yearn for a watery grave. And with bodies described as rivers that carry grief away it’s fitting that the two prostitutes, Yulya and Rimma the two men visit in Molochai, lie writhing on a rug rippling with blues and greens.
Whether it’s because of this betrayal or a simple yearning from the dead to be reunited with her loved ones, somehow the caged buntings become free. Suddenly quiet and then darting for the driver’s eyes, the yellowhammers cause the car to career off the Kineshma Bridge into the Volga, almost at the same spot where Tanya’s body was cremated, avian conduits to the underworld. Reunited in love, Aist is also reunited with his father and the lost Merjan culture. Lost love is like the death of a culture, an existential ache as both man and Merjan try to bring their beloved back from the dead.
That Aleksei Fedorchenko’s startlingly fictitious lost world should seem so authentic is no mean feat. The film’s deliberate, laconic tone conveys both personal mourning and an ethnographer’s grief for a Russia steeped in post-industrial consumerism, detached from both its folkloric roots and its Soviet fathers. But from its haunting opening sequences of a riderless bike with caged buntings negotiating a drifting wooden bridge, or looking backwards cycling through a Russian wood, Fedorchenko’s control of image is masterly. Whether, like Aist, he reaches immortality through these pages written on the side of a dead fish, we can but hope. For in Aleksei Fedorchenko there’s a poetic voice fondly smoking for a long lost Mother Russia, with a lavishness of detail which makes Silent Souls simply haunting.
Silent Souls is released in the UK on 22nd June 2012