Thursday, 16 August 2012

Silent Souls, a meditation on tradition and modernity

The burial of Tanya (Yuliya Aug), the beloved wife of Miron (Yuriy Tsurilo), according to the ancient traditions of the Merya people, gave director Aleksei Fedorchenko, and writer Denis Osokin, the vehicle to produce this visually stunning film, a cinematic poem not only about life and death, but also about the asphyxiating space left for the traditions, rites, ways of life of minorities, such as the Merya people, to culturally survive in the increasingly corporate and globalized space of contemporary life.

Miron, the manager of a rather dilapidated paper mill on post Soviet Union Russia, and Aist (Igor Sergeev), a forty something bachelor, who works as a photographer in the mill, embark on a long road journey for the cremation of Tanya's body, and the burial of her ashes, on the flowing waters of the river, according to their tradition. At one moment, during their travels, we see them wandering through the “stacked to the roof” aisles of a large supermarket in a provincial town, marvelling, to some extent, at the wide variety of goods, toying with some plastic toys. I could not stop having a feeling of nostalgia when I was watching this scene. I decry the increasingly cultural homogeneity and conformity resulting from the advance of modern capitalism.

Silent Souls is more than just a road film, it is a journey as much through a cultural landscape, through a landscape of the mind, as through a physical space. Miron finds out, as he “smokes”, in this road trip with Aist, much more about Tanya than he knew at first. “Smoking” is being defined in the film as a practice of the Merya, where they narrates intimate details of their conjugal relations after the spouse has died, if their interlocutor agrees. I am not sure if “smoking” is the right translation of the Merya word.

Visually, the stunning footage of the camera focussing on Aist's bicycle as he pedals home with the two birds he had just bought, tells us from the very beginning the nature of Silent Souls, not only a journey through the interstices of contemporary Russia, but a cinematic ode to the desire to escape from that confinement, from our confinement, in fact. Indeed, from this point of view, the sexual encounter between Miron and Aist with the two women after the burial is not only a song to life, but also a song to freedom, to be away from the sadness of death, from the ties of life. On this sense, the escape of the two buntings that Aist bought from a rather taciturn street seller, at the beginning of their journey, become inexorably linked to the escape of both Miron and Aist at the end of their road trip, as they return to the river.

What initially began as a journey initiated by Miron to honour his wife in death, as he did in life, through his “smoking” it also becomes Aist's journey, as it became clear that he was not only in love with Tanya, too, but he also brings up his own remembrances of his parents, the ridicule that his father, a poet in the Merya language, suffered. A scene comes up of Aist, as a child, helping his father to bury a typewriter in the river. Then, their encounter with the two women becomes an act of liberation for both of them, as it was their final act, when they return to the river, where a typewriter is waiting for Aist, while Tanya awaits Miron.

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