Love framed in ancestral rituals
One can admire a heartbreaking ancient funeral, enacted as a true rite of passage, when the general tone and ambiance of the whole work breathes the same spirit. In this serene and beautiful Russian film, Silent Souls, by A. Fedorchenko (the French title is “Le dernier voyage de Tanya”), a man, Miron, with his closest friend, both from the same remote tribal community, accompany the suddenly died wife of Miron to her last journey. They accomplish their mission according to the ancestral customs, performing everything in the most natural and unerring way; they will cremate her body on a pyre.
Living somewhere in the northeast part of Russia, between the Volga and the Ural, in a small village, which offers a strange mixture of desertion and a few signs of modern life, such as mobile phones, jeeps, toys in the supermarket, their fidelity to the traditions is unquestionable. Facing death and laying to rest the beloved one according to the noble hereditary rite has nothing to do with any pompous solemnity prescribed by some church. It is nakedly simple, direct and “barbarously” sacred. Our cemeteries are empty, the narrator says, we don’t have God, we only have love for one another. This warm simplicity pervades the film.
If death is a natural part of human life, in the same way as sexual desire and satisfaction, it’s ending, too, perceived in continuity, has to be as sensitive and earthbound as all other human activities. The event doesn’t comprise or allow any pathos. Just as small and great actions are forever changing, going through transformations, ensuing the rhythm of a quiet flow, they exist with the reality of death and admit it.
Even if loss is trying and painful, it is natural.
The first sentence uttered in the film, “my wife died yesterday”, couldn’t be more dramatically direct and strong. When Miron adds that he won’t take her to the morgue, asking his closest friend to come along with him, we have a premonition that something unusual will happen. Each step is merely allusive, never announced with words, yet full of expectation. In their taciturn calmness, exceptional emotions seep through. The relationship between the two men and the dead woman may be complex, but the unspoken content of rivalry, the attachment and distance between them seem to be accepted, in the most mundane form, however always loaded with meaning.
We don’t know anything about the dead woman. However what could be more memorable than her fleshy, broad bosom, round face and full body laid out to be washed ceremoniously, with careful attention, by both men? Or a mere hair washing, the pouring of water or alcohol onto the naked woman’s shining hair, drying it not only with a towel but also with loving embracement, a gentle kiss? Beyond these simple mundane actions, the film dares to linger on a much bolder though “chaste” scene, when the young wife is sensuously enjoying her masturbation, under the dedicated eyes of the loving husband. Is this unusual scene really different from the traditional and more cheerful preparation of the bride for the wedding, when they adorn her pubic hair with colorful threads? This is obviously another Meryan ritual, which will be evoked again later, after her death, when we will be seeing the same ribbons hanging loose from the dry, autumnal branches of a tree, in a mood of poetic melancholy…Sight and expressive connection call for the emotional experience.
Pleasure and mourning do not exclude each other. After the funeral, when the two friends wordlessly pass on a bleak bridge, suddenly two young girls approach them offering their (body) services. Nothing could prevent them from accepting their proposition. Later we can only see the fresh, fully naked, pretty bodies finding pleasure in their sex-play, without the men who have already departed, rather casually.
So much openness associated with so little exhibitionism, such plain, convincing truthfulness are rare gifts in common representation. Authenticity speaks for its right and brings about an unexpected, convincing beauty.
No wonder that the building of the pyre on which they will place the naked woman’s body, wrapped up in a rather ugly blanket, and the execution of the incineration are shown with minute details. We have to live through each stage of the farewell, starting with the above mentioned captivating washing of the naked body, with the tender gestures of the two men and the husband’s careful covering up her face. The preparation for the end is meticulous, showing the physical act of setting up the pyre, “watering” it with great quantities of vodka and then, finally, throwing not only the ashes, but all the used objects, the trashy paper bags and the countless vodka bottles into the river, including the wedding ring of the husband, bringing this event to its irreversible ending.
There is a wonderful haunting beauty in the unadorned rendering of all the facts and events of this simple story. It smoothly leads to the “musical” ending of a full circle, realizing the spiritual purity of return, - the eternal return. A living woman’s body is also a river that carries grief away… remarks the friend. Suggesting that one can drown in it… Thus, without emphasis, almost directly anticipated, without any dramatic effect, our heroes will end up in the same river as the beloved one. To be reunited with her, to live with her.
Imbued with this aura of peaceful wisdom, all the details carry the same weight, seriousness and exceptional values. From the outset, both real physical actions and emotional moves, such as driving on the snow-covered roads, stopping to buy the wood for the pyre, are no less momentous than the expression of the grievous farewell. Or when a sudden flash back shows the friend’s dead father’s favorite typewriter, similarly “buried” in the icy river, we remember the lonely young boy under a dark shadow, whom we have seen at the beginning of the story, as he was apparently mourning the death of his old man. Symbols they are, speaking of passion, love and grief.
The English title of this deeply original film doesn’t sound very fortunate. The protagonists of the movie are not “silent souls”; on the contrary, they are unusually voluble but also actually strikingly free in evoking their memories and sorrowful, private pains. It isn’t just the sudden death, which brings about this astonishing sincerity. It is the particular quality of these people; living within the old traditions of an extinguishing culture, respecting ancestral customs, far away from a “modern”, uniformly civilized life style. Moreover, their mourning is deeper than the personal loss. It concerns their whole culture, which is regrettably ebbing away. Mist and solitude cover the empty, desolate houses, broken roofs… even in their jeep, real life is mostly represented by the two small birds, the buntings who look at the country and people with a vivid interest, ceaselessly chirping in their makeshift cage.
Are these buntings mere “props”, fancy objects? Of course not. Their constant presence and attention stand for something or maybe somebody. We know that they were the favorite pets of Tanya, tender gifts from the friend. Thus, it is through their eyes that we watch the whole journey, as if she was still irremovably with them.
It is true that there is a smooth voice over relating former events, other vignettes of occurrences and sentiments. They call it “smoke”, a little ironically, hinting at the free musing nature of the loud reminiscence. Calling it this way allows us to understand that its role is much less to provide information than to give flashes of the protagonists’ state of mind. Anyhow, the length of the meaningful journey authenticates a lot of it. But one can surmise that it also betrays the anxiety of the director who had feared that the spectator will get lost in this “foreign, exotic” world and might need more insight into it.
The film won two well-deserved prizes at the Venice Film Festival: the International Critics Prize (usually more prestigious than the Golden Prize itself!) and the best Director of Photography prize. Michail Krichman is the sensible cinematographer, whom we remember from a successful former film: The Return by Andrey Zvyagintzev. In the earlier movie, it was his talent for the black and white richness, which made it so admirably nuanced. Here he has to be credited for the creating of the barren, yet warm, elegiac tone. Long traveling shots sway the spectator, taking the risk of monotony, but when the camera dives sometimes into the desolate countryside, with a disused orthodox church in the fog, we are surrounded with deeper sensations; we feel the heavy silence hanging over them and the land. Also, the subtle dissolved images from the past bring about a rare density.
Let’s insist on the telling opening shot: a car is moving on the snowy road, leaving the sad and empty countryside behind. The rhythm of the slow moving is already a farewell, filled with emotion. A foreboding, metaphorical summary of the whole movie, yet palpable, a factual event offered for the senses. We behold it precisely because there is no blunt gravity put on it.
Lights and darkness alternate when we drive along the long roads, showing the ambivalence of rural emptiness and urban swarming. Yet we focus on the mute and grievous silence and solitude. The camera tends to return to the same point of view many times, restricting it deliberately to the interior of the jeep, focusing on the cage with the restless sparrows, which keeps the silent continuity in a refined mobility. As if their regard would be the leading force. The colors are grey and blue, recreating the atmosphere of the protagonists’ state of mind. Avoiding any sentimentality, the calm flow becomes more elegiac and moving than artificial outbursts or turbulence.
However, there is one startling moment when the husband cannot control his emotions: stepping out of the car, he runs toward a small forest, starts embracing a tree and then, suddenly pulls it down with all his strength. An irrational gesture, for sure, yet more dramatic about his repressed passion than any word or tears. Only after this moment can we go back to the disciplined, restrained behavior. The journey goes on. Sitting in the buffet of the supermarket, silently eating their cheap meal from a paper plate, while young kids and people are loudly skating behind them – this is continuity. Their melancholy cannot hide the normal vital energy around them; neither can it obliterate the passion and sensuality they lived through once, binding the three of them together.
Eros and Thanatos meet organically throughout the movie. Both are treated in a tender and frank fashion. Remembrance and actual actions follow like verses in a poem. On the one hand, there is an almost classical linearity in the story, narrating the long journey as they bid farewell to their dead woman. On the other hand, there are some interruptions, evoking past memorable times that bring the movie closer to a freer poetic structure. One unforgettable, almost weird episode: it takes place at a concert that all three attended once; the movie boldly focuses on the conductor: an odd, extraordinarily enthusiastic person who moves with his whole heart and body at the power of the song. Fully overdone, yet believably. A romantic impulse rises to the surface. Its impact is so strong that the husband has to leave the hall in order to overcome his sudden emotions. The impact is part of the recital.
One could wonder: is it” music” for one or two voices? Both characters have their significant part. Finally, it is only through fragments that we will understand that both men have loved Tanya, and this parallel and yet separate desire has woven the fabric of their friendship and interdependence. Therefore the revived parts are always self-contained and full. No need to force factual connections or junctions. In the atmosphere of an all-embracing melancholy and sorrow as well as the sense of passing time, the spiritual vision of the unity of life prevails.
Due to the serenity of the author’s approach and contemplative attitude, based on fine observations and revealed through smaller details, bring about a peculiar non-dramatic unfolding of the “story”. The gaze is attentive; the narration is straightforward, leaving room for the thought, pondering each step for further reflection. One has to be mulling over the deeply concealed sense.
Since, according to the mind of the creators, beginning and ending are equal parts of the same circle. A kind of cosmic harmony embraces the story. A legend? A tale? An incarnation of the slave soul? Its earthy mysticism brings the vision to a universal level.