Silent Souls (Ovsyanki)

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Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
Silent Souls (Ovsyanki)
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

Aist (Aleksei Fedorchenko) has lost his much younger wife Tanya (Yulya Aug). He holds the centuries long traditions of his Merya tribe close to his heart and, with the help of his friend Miron (Yuri Tsurilo), he sets out to return his wife to the waters of his homeland and the place they once honeymooned in “Silent Souls.”

Robin:
If you are looking for action, drama or comedy, then “Silent Souls” is not the film for you. This is slowly paced, lyrical study of a man, in grief over the death of his wife, who makes the journey across Russia to honor wife and his Meryan roots. As they drive along (and drive and drive) with Tanya’s body laying in the back of the car, Aist opens up to his friend and talks, in detail, about his intimacies with his much-younger wife. This dialog made me squirm with the same discomfort that Miron would feel, bringing me into the film as participant and not just viewer.

Even though not much happens during the course of “Silent Souls,” it is the attention to little details – Aist and Miron preparing Tanya’s body; the purchase of hundreds of axe handles; the building of a funeral pyre to cremate Tanya’s body –  that make it fascinating to watch. If you give it a chance, and are patient, you end up living in these characters. The ending is an unanticipated shocker.

Director Aleksei Fedorchenko spends long periods in the film (which runs at a spare 75 minutes) where nothing happens but long shots of Aist’s car driving down one desolate road or another. But, these long shots (both in distance and in time) are interspersed with the above-mentioned details and this is where the film grabs you. The stark cinematography, by Mikhail Krichman, perfectly reflects the mood of the story, by Denis Osokin. “Silent Souls” will not make it to the multiplex but that is OK. This is one for the real film buffs out there. I give it a B.

Laura:
When Aist (Igor Sergeev, Russia's answer to Kelsey Grammer) is called to meet with his boss, Miron (Yuriy Tsurilo), the task at hand is not work related but a request to tend to the body of Miron's young wife Tanya (Yuliya Aug), who died the night before.  A regular burial will not do as Miron and Aist are Meryans descended from the Finnish tribes who settled the rural area in centuries past.  Tanya is to be prepared as a bride and taken to the water where she honeymooned in "Silent Souls."

This beautiful, provocative film is like a road trip into a dream, an immersion into something quite mystical yet bound to the natural earth.  Aist is our narrator and as he educates us in the Meryan rites that are being performed, he is also remembering the past and the whole becomes a spiritual cycle of life.  Director Aleksei Fedorchenko emphasizes long roads disappearing into the horizon and the erotic memories of past and present as worldly touchstones upon which Meryan beliefs, like something handed down from the Vikings where love of each other replaces gods, ripple and flow.

Aist is in a nostalgic mood when he buys a caged pair of buntings from an old bird seller, returning to his home on a bike across a long road. These birds, too, serve as reminders of nature and guides to another world.  Aist brings them along on his trip with Miron to make sure they're fed and Miron tells him that his wife's maiden name was Buntinka and that she loved birds.  As they drive along, Miron 'smokes,' a tradition in which the survivor of a loved one recounts intimate details about that person so that grief may turn to tenderness.  He mostly dwells on sex, and his thoughts encourage Aist's own, like a moment that passed between himself and Tanya as he took her photograph.  Writer Denis Osokin provides other subtle hints that there is a reason Miron chose Aist, but Aist's relationship with the deceased stays largely ambiguous.

And so as we see these men carrying out their quest with deliberateness, purchasing axe and shovel handles, building a pyre, dousing the wrapped body with flammables, while their thoughts fly like birds.  Both men remember Tanya and she's lit like a Vermeer but with blue Russian light.  A boy on a rowboat sits in front of us while the blurry background floats and we wonder if he's part of Tanya's transport. Only later do we learn we've seen Aist remembering a similar trip, to bury his mother and stillborn sibling. Aist recalls his father as 'a queer fish and self taught Meryan poet' and we see a typewriter dragged through the snow as a man tells the river he knows all its fish.  All this road and water imagery, shot so beautifully, recall another Russian film, 2004's "The Return," and one discovers they share cinematographer Mikhail Krichman.  If that film chronicled the pull between mother and father this one bridges life and death, never more so than when Miron and Aist reach Merchai, a stunning old town lost in the mist and the outskirts of the pedestrian living space that has replaced it. Original Music by Andrei Karasyov features female voices and low rumblings, preparing us for what Aist has foretold at the onset.  This melancholy tone poem that features so much death miraculously celebrates life.

B+
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