Silent Souls, the meditative third feature from Russian filmmaker Aleksey Fedorchenko, is described as a road movie, and it is, though the journey itself is as much ritual as it is travel. But it’s also a spiritual journey, a remembrance, a rumination on a life and a cultural identity, a symbolic odyssey that recalls the patient, poetic work of Andrei Tarkovsky in its long takes and imagery that seems to emerge from the mists, and an anthropological tour through the distinctive (and disappearing) culture of the Meryan people in West-Central Russia.
But back to the ritual. This road trip is a funeral procession of sorts, a farewell to a beloved young wife who died before her time by her grieving husband Miron (Yuriy Tsurilo). He’s the foreman of a paper mill in the small town of Neya and he asks his friend Aist (Igor Sergeev), a photographer at the mill, a writer and poet, and something of a cultural historian, to accompany him. After tenderly cleaning her body and lovingly adorning her “like a bride” (the scene is wordless and bereft of emotional display, but the tenderness and care reveal a well of feelings behind his focused attentions), they wrap her in a blanket and, accompanied by a pair of caged birds, take her to her journey back to the source.
Aist narrates this odyssey by explaining the beliefs and the character of the Meryan people, who pride themselves on the unique heritage bestowed upon them by their Finnish ancestors who settled in this remote land. Neya is the center of this culture, or at least it was. It no longer exists, Aist explains. While the town appears to be slowly dying out from what we can see, the full meaning of his remark won’t be clear until journey’s end.