silent soulsOne of cinema’s greatest abilities is to convert local literature and remote novels into universally comprehensible visual currency. It might take a lifetime to get around to reading Buntings, Denis Osokin’s obscure Russian novella, but Aleksei Fedorchenko’s film adaptation should have a fair chance of jumping to the top of your queue. This brisk journey to Western Russia is expansive in its specificity and universal in its depiction of the conflict between lives structured by ritual and the encroaching impersonality of contemporary life.

Silent Souls tells the slender, resonant story of Aist (Igor Sergeev), of the vanishing Meryan people, who assists in the ceremonial transport and cremation of his friend Miron’s (Yuriy Tsirilo) recently deceased wife. We understand the woman’s life and death only through brief, uncomfortable, largely sexual moments that reverberate with tradition. It is in the bedroom that the Meryan’s most idiosyncratic practices are still practiced, such as the bathing of women with vodka or the knitting of beaded string into a bride’s pubic hair. We begin to see that Aist does not lament the slow disappearance of his people’s rituals (for everything must eventually cease to be), but rather their adaptation to a world that makes them disturbing and strange. We are told, for example, that it is common practice for Meryan widower’s to tell lurid stories about their wives, called “smoke,” in the interim between death and cremation. But when Miron tells Aist about his beloved Tanya, and then spreads her ashes in the sea, his camera phone still contains the evidence of loving and lustful moments that would have previously been lost, probably for the better. Miron and Aist spend the hours following the cremation in a shopping mall, their new environment entirely incongruent with the morning’s traditional funeral. Fedorchenko deftly contrasts the indoor ice rink, a mere simulacrum, with the glorious Russian lakes, frozen over and unyielding, that Aist remembers visiting with his father as a child.

The title of the source material is a good place to start in the breaking down of Silent Souls’ intentions. At the start of the film, we see buntings being bicycled to the market where Aist will buy them. We see the bicycle from behind, and then cut to a classic, ghostly view of the road behind the speeding bike. We are privy only to the past. This is a film of origins, where people are consumed by where they have come from, unsure of where they are going, both within the confines of one lifetime, but also very much beyond them. Aist, for example, tells us, in voiceover, of his parents’ too-short and felicitous marriage, but he also gives us a sampling of his father’s earthy, naturalist poetry which hearkens back to centuries of Meryan cultural history.

Fedorchenko’s  images hardly glorify the landscape in the way that Aist and his father’s words do. Instead they highlight the beauty that can be found even in the iciest, blue-grey lookouts.The humans receive a visual treatment no warmer than the terrain, yet their great affection for each other still shines through,. The humanist core of the Meryan philosophy transcends the boundaries of this small story and reaches out, touching the way we all deal with physical environment, cultural inheritance and loss. The film’s insights are hardly to be ignored, and with its slim runtime and its new and attractive DVD edition from Zeitgeist Films, the accessible Silent Souls is now easy to access.