For its English-language release, Silent Souls is aptly named. The film is a quiet, meditative examination of life, love, death and grieving. In fact, it’s the film’s quietude that gives it such emotional heft.
Originally released in 2010 and recently on DVD in the US, Silent Souls is set in Central Russia and is based on a 2008 novella, The Buntings, by Denis Osokin. The story is told by Aist (Igor Sergeyev), a 40-something writer and photographer living in the riverside city of Neya. Aist is fascinated by the culture and traditions of the Merya, an ancient tribe of Finns who migrated and settled in Central Russia’s Volga basin. Miron (Yuri Tsurilo), a businessman whose wife, Tanya (Yuliya Aug), has passed away, asks Aist for help conducting a traditional Meryan funeral rite. The two men embark on a road trip so the ceremony can be observed near the place where Tanya and Miron spent their honeymoon.
Early in the film, Aist relates some advice from his poet father: “If your soul is hurting, you should write about what’s around you.” Silent Souls director Alexsei Fedorchenko seems to heed that advice, employing a realist style that relies heavily on long takes with deep focus to establish the landscape and to carry the narrative. The action takes place on the shoulder of winter, resulting in a muddy, bleak, barren and cold natural world. Nevertheless, Fedorchenko finds the beauty within that world, composing rule-of-thirds frames that are striking in their artistry. In this way, Silent Souls is reminiscent of Winter’s Bone, where a sad human tale unfolds within a cold and aloof yet beautiful-in-its-own-way natural environment.
The long takes continue during the travelling sequences of the film, where Fedorchenko positions a camera in the back seat of the men’s car, providing the viewer a passenger’s point-of-view. These single-shot scenes not only give a view of the road and landscape ahead (with one scene playfully paying tribute to Ilya Repin’s painting, Boat Haulers on the Volga), they provide insight into the chemistry between Aist and Miron.
Although Silent Souls bears thumbprints of directors such as Orson Welles, Roberto Rossellini or Jean-Luc Godard, Fedorchenko also tips his hat to director, montage pioneer and fellow countryman, Sergei Eisenstein. Through the use of dreamlike flashbacks and montages, Fedorchenko provides Aist’s backstory and motivations, and he sheds light on the relationship between Miron and Tanya.
Throughout Silent Souls, Fedorchenko explores some of the ways we humans distract ourselves from the spectre of death: work, art, poetry, music, sex, drink, memory, social and cultural rituals, or even shopping; incidentally, a scene in which Aist and Miron wander through a big-box superstore clearly articulates this is post-Soviet cinema.
Silent Souls is in Russian with English subtitles, but with minimalist voiceover and sparse dialogue, there’s not a lot to read. The power and intensity of the acting — and the film — comes in the silent moments; most notably, simply being with a grieving friend when words are inadequate. That kind of raw emotion works in any language.
The DVD is distributed by New York-based Zeitgeist Films, and it features an HD widescreen transfer of Silent Souls. The only extra item on the DVD is the US theatrical trailer; helpfully, the film’s credits and its chapters are printed on the inside of the keep case. Silent Souls is unrated, but given its serious subject matter and the inclusion of occasional nudity, it is for mature audiences.