If there’s anything I’ve learned about the inhabitants of Russia in this life, then it’s their fondness for vodka and fixation with mortality. This fixation has cut a cultural path through the centuries, from Nikolai Gogol’s darkly humorous novel Dead Souls to Andrei Tarkovsky’s existential dramas Solaris and Stalker among others. Director Aleksei Fedorchenko continues with this theme in Silent Souls, a dreamlike take on death and the afterlife.
It is a simple narrative; Aist (Igor Sergeev) and Miron (Yuriy Tsurilo) work in a paper mill in a rundown rural town, inhabited by a people known as ‘Merjans’. Miron, the boss, confides in his friend that his wife Tanya (Yuliya Aug) has died suddenly and asks Aist to help him give her a proper farewell. For the Merjan people have a way of marking events differently than civilised society. The two middle aged men set off on a road trip in order to complete the task at hand.
Nothing much really happens in Silent Souls. The two men sit in silence in the car, Aist cradling his precious Buntings, a delicate set of birds that come to symbolise some kind of transition for them both. Now and then, Miron tells Aist about his life together with Tanya, a Merjan ritual that the widower reveals all the personal details of his loved one after their death. A cleansing of sorts, but a vulgar one at that.
Silent Souls is a strange, languid oddity that works best if the audience let it wash over them. The elliptical editing, swinging between the present and the past, and the vivid, wintery visuals have a woozy, hypnotic effect on the viewer, lulling them into a trance. The long tracking shots from the car are reminiscent of Stalker’s infamous tunnel sequence, an oddly calming and cathartic experience. Andrei Karasyov’s pretty score veers between the dreamy and the sentimental, echoing the film’s mix of emotion and distance.