Thursday, September 15, 2011

In SILENT SOULS Aleksei Fedorchenko makes wondrous use of the four elements

An-honest-to-goodness "art film" by way of Russia, SILENT SOULS from Siberian-born filmmaker Aleksei Fedorchenko, shown below, works in nearly any way and as almost any thing you'd care to call it: art film, mystery, anthropology, poetry, or oddest of all, a kind of accidental (or maybe not) feminist tale. A small, 74-minute jewel of art -- visual and verbal -- the film tracks the very strange road trip made by a couple of modern male mem-bers of the culture of Merja (which, according to the press materials for this film, is "an ancient Finno-Ugric tribe from Lake Nero, a picturesque region in West Central Russia"). OK: I'll go with that.

However, if I were soon to be told that this whole "Merjan" thing were a put-on, and that the movie was some kind of narrative mockumentary, created out of whole cloth, I'd accept it just as willingly. For Silent Souls, whatever it is, exists as the kind of "truth" that a genuine art film manages to create entirely on its own. From the first, beauty of place combines with a narration of piquant words, well-chosen and -spoken by our narrator, Aist (Igor Sergeev), below with birds, who fills us in on his own life and history, as well as that of his best friend Miron (Yuriy Tsurilo, shown two photos down), as the film moves along. We also get a heady dose of Merja cultural habits, sometimes quite specific and strange.

Miron, you see, has suddenly become a widower, and he asks Aist to accompany him, along with his late wife's body -- which they must first bathe and clean (this will remind you of Jewish custom) -- on the ritual "journey of goodbye" for which Merja culture provides. They depart, and their journey becomes, on one level, an engagement with the four elements -- earth air, fire and water -- in ways for which you will hardly be prepared.

This also turns the film, intentionally or not -- and if not, then this is simply another instance in which the artist arrives at his point intuitively rather than intentionally --  into a very strange feminist fable. For all the proclamations of love that Miron makes toward his late wife, the film also shows clearly that she, as well as every woman we see here, are simply objects. They are to be worshiped, perhaps, but they have no place nor personality of their own, no needs worth meeting, no reason to exist except to please, and mostly pleasure, their man. For all we know Miron's wife may have committed suicide.

Now, this male chauvenism may indeed be one of the cornerstones of  Merja culture (and maybe by extension, Russian, eastern, western -- hell, worldwide -- culture), but what this movie does with it is quite extraordinary.  As the body is transported, at one point the auto must stop for a roadblock, and one cannot help but wonder if, in other hands, this tale might easily become a noir mystery: how to murder your wife, Merja style. Further, the film's ending -- a momentary surprise, if not an outright shock -- becomes a kind of judgment on these men that makes sense on a number of levels.

And yet, throughout, there is so much beauty on display -- in the bleak landscape, framed with a artist's eye; in the words that pour out of Aist, about his family, his life, his lack of love (the fine screenplay is by Denis Osokin)-- that this feminist theme never unbalances the movie. Silent Souls is a work of art that is utterly accessible, intelligent, riveting and simply gorgeous in its quiet, un-showy way.

The movie, from Shadow Distribution, after making waves at the Venice, Toronto and New York Film Festivals, opens theatrically in New York at the Angelika Film Center tomorrow, Friday, September 16, and in Los Angeles area on September 30 at Laemmle's Music Hall 3 and Town Center 5 cinemas. Further playdates, I would hope, will come, for this is clearly one of the year's best films.

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