Friday, December 16, 2011

One Whose Name Was Writ in Water

There's a scene near the beginning of Silent Souls (2010, directed by Aleksei Fedorchenko) in which two men prepare the body of a dead woman for her funeral. The scene is filmed in a single shot, and the loving care and attention to detail makes it one of the most indelible images I've seen in a movie this year. The two men prepare the body as if she were going to her wedding. The narrator tells us that the Merjans, a Baltic ethnicity to whom the two men and the woman belong, customarily weave threads into the pubic hair of brides for their new husbands to undo. The two men follow this custom in death, too. Sex and death are the two great themes of the movie, and it incarnates these two themes as symbolic avatars, as love and water, the two ancient gods of the Merjans. This sounds kind of grandiose, but it's not. The movie is careful to elaborate its themes in quotidian strokes and an earthy sexuality. This may be a film about death, but it's also a film about life. Yin and yang. World without end.

The framework of Silent Souls is pretty simple. Our narrator is Aist, a mill worker, photographer, and failed poet. His boss is Miron, whose much-younger wife, Tanya, has just passed on. The Merjan's traditionally cremate their dead on the shores of water, and scatter the ashes to be swept away. Miron askes Aist to help with Tanya, knowing that there was once something between Aist and Tanya. The two men prepare her body and take her on a journey with them to where they'll perform the funeral. Aist takes a birdcage with him with the two buntings he's just bought; he doesn't want to leave them alone while they're gone. On the road, Miron regales Aist with tales of his sex life with Tanya, another custom of the Merjans, and through these reminiscences, Tanya comes to life. Aist, for his part, spends the trip remembering his father, another failed poet.

The film itself is brief. It only runs 75 minutes, though it seems more expansive given the preponderance of long shots. It's beautifully shot, though its tone is slow, deliberate, and ultimately mournful. Every so often, though, it lights up the screen with unexpected images, like the faces of the women at the mill that Aist photographs one after another, and later, the ecstatic side by side faces of the two prostitutes who our characters meet after the funeral as Aist and Miron have sex with them. Sex, for this film, is the way humans heal from pain and comfort the grieving. The images of faces of people drifting along in boats are striking, too. The end of the movie seems foreordained when it comes, with Aist's buntings acting as psychopomps, guiding the dead to their destination.

Silent Souls a film that finds the epic and universal in the specific, and an almost painful intimacy with its characters. I don't know if the Merjans are a real ethnicity or not--the film claims that they were a tribe of Finns who were absorbed by the Russians centuries ago--but it doesn't matter. Part of the thrust of the movie is an almost Buddhist sense of everything passing away: customs, civilizations, people, everything. The scale of being and nothingness suggested by Silent Souls is vast, even if the scale of what's on screen is miniscule. At its most basic level, this is a road movie, one in which the destination isn't that important. What matters, instead, is what the journey does to our two protagonists. The journey itself is a kind of metaphysical purgation so by the time our two travelers arrive at their ultimate destination, they've prepared for what the end actually means: love and water, sex and death, and an empty road ahead.

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