By Don Simpson | September 22, 2011
Director: Aleksei Fedorchenko
Writer: Denis Osokin
Starring: Igor Sergeev, Yuriy Tsurilo, Yuliya Aug, Ivan Tushin, Yulia Tushina
Merjan people are a Finno-Ugric tribe who assimilated themselves into near extinction centuries ago; but a few remaining rites and traditions remain, and Aist (Igor Sergheyev) has set forth to document his culture before it is completely lost. Aist’s father was a self-taught Merjan poet, so writing about his Merjan ancestry also reconnects him with memories of his deceased father. Besides writing — and serving as our narrator — Aist also works as a paper mill engineer. On one fateful day, his boss, friend and fellow Merjan, Miron (Yuri Tsurilo) requests that Aist accompany him on a road trip to cremate his beloved wife, Tanya (Yuliya Aug), in the traditional Merja style.
They depart their home village of Neya in Miron’s SUV with a pair of caged buntings between them and Tanya’s voluptuous body in the backseat. After making a few detours along the way — including a stop to wash Tanya’s body and tie strings to her pubic hair — they eventually arrive on the banks of the Volga river for the ancient ritual. The Volga river is incredibly significant as it represents the primary vein of Merjan history; while water itself plays a significant role in Merjan traditions and is intrinsically linked to death.
The past and present are constantly intertwined as the two Merjan men gather the necessary ingredients for Tanya’s funeral in the modern world. The wood for the funeral pyre, for example, consists of ax and shovel handles purchased at a hardware store; then, after the funeral, Aist and Miron eat at a mall beside a skating rink.
Aist’s ethnographic ramblings provide us with a rare glimpse into Merjan culture. Describing Merjans as expressionless and impassive people — except for sex — Aist muses about promiscuity being modern Merjans’ one remaining link to their tribe’s lost culture. (A visual metaphor tells us that infidelities are forgotten like water under the bridge.) Merjan culture is highly sexual — the aforementioned ritual of tying threads to Tanya’s pubic hair is related to an ancient Merjan custom of intertwining multicolored threads to a bride-to-be’s pubic hair on her wedding day. Miron also adheres to the Merjan tradition of reminiscing about intimate details of a dead person’s sexual life, otherwise known as “smoking,” and Aist does not seem to mind.
Aleksei Fedorchenko’s Silent Souls functions as a Robert Flaherty-esque study of Merjan tradition. Adapted by Denis Osokin from Aist Sergeyev’s novel The Buntings, Merjan history — specifically its folklore, rituals, language and culture — is transformed by Fedorchenko’s kino eye into a visually meditative ethnographic essay. Though the narrative is quite contemplative (read: slow) and meandering, the 75-minute running time (including credits) makes Silent Souls an enjoyable ride nonetheless.