Yuri Tsuriol, foreground (Photo: Shadow Distribution)

Written & Directed by Aleksei Fedorchenko
Produced by Igor Mishin & Mary Nazari
Written by Denis Osokin, based on a novel by Aist Sergeyev
Released by Shadow Distribution
Russia. 75 min. Not rated
With Igor Sergeyev, Yuri Tsurilo, Yuliya Aug & Ivan Tushin


There are some beautiful moments in Silent Souls, a self-serious account of two Merjan men (from a Finno-Ugric tribe in West-Central Russia) fulfilling ancient rituals, but the attempt to weigh down each and every scene with maximum poetic meaning grows old after the first few woeful minutes. In the evocative (and in this case, misused) tradition of slow and deeply meaningful Russian films, director Aleksei Fedorchenko adapts to film the equivalent of a poem. The plaintive look at a little known culture nostalgic for its identity in the face of assimilation is a compelling theme, but when it comes to narrative, there simply isn’t enough to say, figuratively and literally. (The lines of dialogue—mostly short lyrical narration—are few and far between).

The cinematography is sufficiently atmospheric (although what else can be expected of expansive grey landscapes?), but the intended significance of slow pans across endless terrain feels superficial in the absence of a pithy narrative core. In fact, Silent Souls is only worthwhile as a documentation of a disappearing cultural minority, who speak and look Russian but hold on to their unusual names and mysterious mythology. The rites of the Merja culture may be fictitious here but they dutifully serve as a metaphor for countless ethnic enclaves absorbed into Russian over the centuries. For example, Aist (Igor Sergeyev), our middle-aged protagonist and soulful narrator, explains to the audience how the Merjans have a tradition of tying colorful threads to a bride’s pubic hair on the day of her wedding and then hanging them on tree branches the morning after. They also do this after her death, like when his factory boss asks Aist to help him bury Tanya (Yuliya Aug), his young wife.

The two quiet men (and a cage of bunting birds, brought along as a dose of crude but unclear symbolism) set off on a trip to cremate the body and release the ashes into Lake Nero, where Tanya and her husband honeymooned. In the course of the long, mostly silent car ride through the arid expanse, we catch glimpses of Aist’s childhood, prompted by his succinct internal monologue. We also learn that Aist was not arbitrarily chosen by his boss to aid in Tanya’s burial, and may have had a role not just in her life but maybe even in her death. It’s a twist which the film strains to conceal, but other turns of fate can be spotted earlier than the director would hope. Water, Aist explains, takes the place of Gods in Merjan mythology, so revered that death by drowning is a welcomed fate. Even the unobservant viewer can see the foreshadowing through this feeble smoke screen, and the film’s inevitable denouement looms clearly in view.

Silent Souls trailer (English Subtitles) from Shadow Distribution on Vimeo.