Russian director Aleksei Fedorchenko surfaced here back in 2005 with First on the Moon, an eccentric, wistful mockumentary inventing a Soviet lunar mission launched at the height of Stalin-era delirium. His third feature, Silent Souls, included in last year’s New York Film Festival, is another sort of imaginary excavation, evoking Russia’s pre-Slavic, pagan past in the form of a meditative road trip taken by two descendants of the ancient Merja people.
It’s Fedorchenko’s premise that, though externally indistinguishable from other Russians, Merjans nevertheless recognize each other and share a common psychic bond. Thus, newly bereaved Miron recruits his taciturn friend Aist—the movie’s narrator—to help him bid farewell to his beloved wife Tanya according to their mysterious, half-remembered Merja traditions and rituals. Accompanied by two caged sparrows and Tanya’s body (which they have washed and “adorned like a bride”), the pair take off on a gray drizzly day into the empty expanse of central Russia. As they drive, Miron regales Aist with intimate, solemnly ribald details of his married life, another supposed Merja custom. Shown in flashback, the spectacle of Miron bathing his Rubenesque Tanya with vodka has an overearnest, melancholy quality. The Merjans’ journey into the past, with Aist remembering his own childhood, takes them to an ancient lake beside which they prepare Tanya’s funeral pyre (fueled with more vodka) and into which, amid the gentle cacophony of Andrei Karasyov’s eerie score, they consign her ashes.
At 75 minutes, Silent Souls has the sustained flow of a musical composition. Past and present are seamless. The conviction is so strong that it only gradually becomes apparent that we are watching a posthumous tale, narrated by Aist from somewhere beyond the grave. Dour yet affirmative, this laconic, deliberately paced, beautifully shot movie seeks the archaic in the ordinary—and, though somewhat off-putting in its diffidence, largely succeeds.