There’s a voiceover buzzing through Alexei Fedorchenko’s brief, impressionistic, and sentimental Silent Souls, and it’s eager to tell you how to absorb what you’re watching. The voice belongs to Aist, presumably a constructed cinematic alter ego of writer Aist Sergeyev, whose novel The Buntings provided the basis for the film. And there’s no denying the novelistic approach the film takes to its storytelling—it relies heavily on its narrator to inform the viewer of the significance of its environment and history. Fedorchenko seems to have been concerned that otherwise we might not be persuaded of the magic inherent in the traditions of the people at its center: the Meryans, a Finnish-Ugric tribe assimilated into Russia for hundreds of years who nevertheless maintained a spiritual connection to their ancestry through rituals and language. In this bleak drama of love after death, two contemporary Russian men of Meryan descent enact an ancient funereal rite of passage on a devoted wife. There’s an undeniable dramatic thrust to the tale, but the film is too impressed with its own elegiac minutiae, and so convinced that its audience will be awestruck by its characters’ resolute adherence to a departed way of life, that it leaves viewers as little more than passive observers.
With its impressive (and self-impressed) camerawork by current feted star cinematographer Mikhail Krichman—whose exacting, evocative photography on Andrei Zvyagintsev’s The Return convinced many that the film was something more than a hoary father-son parable—and mournful soundtrack of choral wails, Silent Souls all but begs to be called poetic; but it’s too precious and over-aestheticized to convince as art, and certainly too corny to allow comparisons to Tarkovsky, which has nevertheless not stopped some critics from doing just that. This is Fedorchenko’s third film, but first to play in the U.S., and it’s easy to see its appeal—as a hermetic exotic object. It borrows the vernacular of the contemporary art film (long takes, slow tracks and zooms, an “uncompromising” fixation on ungainly naked flesh) but does so gingerly, without risking viewer alienation. For less adventurous festival-goers it’s the perfect antidote to this year’s other Russian breakout, the superlative, troubling My Joy; unlike that film, Silent Souls builds a microcosm that, although set today, circumvents contemporary Russian reality by paying tribute to a marginal past. —Michael Koresky