Film review: Silent Souls (15)

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ALEKSEI Fedorchenko’s short story is daring in the way only quiet, unhurried but resonant films have the moxie to be.

Director: Aleksei Fedorchenko

Running time: 78 minutes

* * * *

Set in a remote part of Russia, loss and grief are the triggers for Silent Souls, when Miron (Yuri Tsurilo) discovers his young wife Tanya (Yuliya Aug) has suddenly died in her sleep, and asks his friend Aist (Igor Sergeyev) to join him on a journey to dispose of her body in a ceremony by a sacred lake. Middle-aged Aist lives on his own, but recently bought two buntings for company and insists on loading the birds into the ancient estate car, beside the body of deceased.

Along with the chirrups, the road trip is accompanied by Aist’s detached narration. “Our people are a bit strange, their faces are inexpressive. There are no passions boiling,” he explains. His people are a community of Finnish descent called Meryans, whose sense of identity – customs and beliefs – has dwindled over centuries until their language died out, apart from a few local words for places on the map.

Yet while they look and speak Russian, they still have the remnants of some distinctive pagan customs such as ­tying brightly coloured threads to the pubic hair of brides-to-be, and “smoking”, where the bereaved overshare details of the intimate habits of the recently deceased. This unburdening helps ease the grief. During the road trip, there’s a tacit acknowledgement that Aist may also have had a spark with Miron’s wife, and that Miron knew it, but neither man wants to press the point.

The death of Tanya mirrors the slow extinction of the Meryans and their culture. Aist’s crazy poet dad gave up the fight for self-expression years ago by tipping his typewriter down an ice hole to a watery grave. It’s not entirely a useless gesture: in Silent Souls you quickly gather that any death involving water is ­regarded as the very best kind of finale.

If this sounds a bit mournful, well, yes it is. There are also long stretches where the two men simply contemplate wintry north-west Russia’s towns or the road ahead, and while you learn things such as the best wood for a funeral pyre (axe handles from a hardware store), there’s no denying this has niche appeal. I also suspect a whole bunch of political ­nuances passed over my head, nodding at Russia’s monolithic approach to ethnic identity.

Yet weirdly, the film’s steady, purposeful gait becomes compelling over its 80-minute running time and the unspoken solidarity between the two men is rather touching. Not everyone will leap at the chance to regard the Soviet equivalent of the A77 for minutes at a time but it’s still a lovely piece. Its themes emerge slowly and the style is allusive and indirect, but it’s always clear that this is a haunting expression of life and extinction, of disappointments and possibilities.

Siobhan Synnot

Edinburgh Filmhouse until Thursday