Why the plural? The one silent soul featured is a voluptuous flaccid corpse on its last rite of passage through the land of the living to the gray waters of the Neya River. Analogous to the precarious pontoon bridge the cyclist crosses at the beginning, this film is the story of a transitional voyage from life to death, not only for the dead woman but the dying culture of the Merjan people in northwestern Russia.
“Silent Souls” is one of the first films to start off the 34th Annual Portland Film Festival (PIFF) on Friday, Feb. 11.
At the film’s screening, when the lights went on, there were exclamations about how beautiful and touching the film was. Upon asking clarifying questions about such basic things as the relationship between the corpse and the husband’s helper, whose wrist wore the gift and what the relationship was like between the husband and his now deceased wife, everyone gave opposing answers.
Never mind clarifying the title. Though the original Russian name of the movie is “Ovsyanki,” meaning buntings, it was marketed in Europe as “Tatiana’s Last Journey.” In the U.S., it is going by “Silent Souls.”
What can be agreed upon is that the film begins and ends with buntings and the Neya River. Buntings are defined as Old World sparrows (Wikipedia). In present time they are also becoming an endangered species because they are losing their marshy habitat to development.
On one level this film is easily an allegory telling of the disintegration and usurpation of a culture through time and technological advancement. Like the buntings that are slowly being routed from their habitat, the Merja people, represented by our actors, are now practically a figment of history, lost to stories and legends. Tatiana, called affectionately by her husband with a derivative of the term bunting, represents the loss of this culture.
The film’s director, Aleksei Fedorchenko, stated in his press conference at the Venice film festival that his intention was to focus on tenderness. “We wanted tenderness to be transformed into nostalgia; tenderness and nostalgia were to become synonymous with love. This feeling, this representation of the Merjan, was something we felt the whole time we were staying in that region.”
Many in the audience saw a tender beauty, a man’s love for his wife and culture, and two men who work in diligence to preserve old customs.
However, others might see something not quite as positive.
From the moment the husband asks another man to help with the burial preparation some might guess he went to this man because he knew he was the other man in his wife’s life. Perhaps there is the sense that they both loved her and would see her off together, as it is early on declared in the film that in Merjan society there was promiscuity.
Whatever you see, most will recognize this woman as a representative and transmitter of culture. Perhaps when a culture collapses a certain human richness evaporates leaving a silence in our souls. There’s an explanation for the plural in the title.
PIFF is showing the best of the world’s unavailable films. They are not simple and they are not shallow. They invite conversation, dissension and rich discussion. “Silent Souls” will provoke such an exchange.
Director: Aleksei Fedorchenko
Writer: Denis Osokin
Stars: Yuliya Aug, Igor Sergeev and Viktor Sukhorukov
Language: Russian with English subtitles
Release Date: Nov. 3, 2010 (France)
Web site: http://festivals.nwfilm.org/piff34/schedule/s/
“Silent Souls” plays on Feb 11 and 13, 2011 at the Portland International Film Festival
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