Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Very White Russians: Silent Souls

Russia might not be the most hospitable of homes for its ethnic minorities, but the simple forces of time and assimilation are far more responsible for the waning cultural identity and appreciation of the Merja Russians, ethnic cousins of the Finns. However, one Merjan writer’s efforts to preserve his cultural heritage takes him on a fateful road trip with his grieving boss in Aleksei Fedorchenko’s Silent Souls (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Though much traditional Merjan culture has faded from everyday memory, Miron knows his friend Aist is fully versed in their people’s traditional funereal rituals. The son of a well regarded Merja poet-laborer, Aist researches and records nearly forgotten Merjan lore as a private passion. More Nordic than Slavic, Aist is not a talkative man, but he will provide Silent’s narration. Indeed the rough hewn character of his (or actor Igor Sergeyev’s) voice makes him one of the most effective narrators heard on film in recent memory, subtitles notwithstanding.

Miron and Aist will drive across the frozen west central Russian landscape to Lake Nero, the site of his honeymoon with his much younger, yet now tragically dearly departed wife Tanya. There they will build her funeral pyre in much the same manner the Norsemen did millennia ago. For company, they have themselves, their memories, and two caged buntings Aist recently purchased. Those birds are not just for show. Like everything else in Silent they might appear to be a causal impulse buy, but their significance will become apparent later.

Though relatively unheralded among last year’s New York Film Festival selections, Silent was one of the strongest films at the festival. Elegiac in multiple ways, it is a powerful meditation on the death of an individual and the protracted demise of a culture, without ever becoming heavy-handed or overly maudlin. While it is deliberately paced, it actually head towards someplace specific, both geographically and cinematically.

Throughout the film, Fedorchenko handles his themes and cast with a deft touch. Though his symbolism is inescapable, it is always accessible and disciplined, rather than pretentious or obtuse. While in lesser hands, Silent’s ending might have been problematic, Fedorchenko’s methodical groundwork makes it feel logical and fitting, without outright telegraphing it clumsily. Fedorchenko and cinematographer Mikhail Krichman also take full advantage of the evocative landscape, presenting some striking winter vistas.

Whether it is engaging in salty talk with Miron or ruminating on what it means to be Merjan, Sergeyev brings a remarkable naturalness and genuine gravitas to the film as the protagonist-narrator. It is the sort of accomplished work that is often unfairly overlooked due to its lack of affectation.

Though it requires viewers’ full attention, there is great depth beneath Silent’s austerely chilly surface. An excellent film featuring a great lead performance, Silent opens this Friday (9/16) in New York at the Angelika Film Center.