Tuesday 19 June 2012

Accustomed as we are: "Silent Souls"

A film set firmly in the Russian poetic tradition, Silent Souls takes an offbeat road-trip premise - a photographer is asked by his friend to help transport the body of his dead wife to her final resting place - and adorns it with all manner of (initially odd-seeming) customs apparently specific to the Mirjan people of the country's midwest. Our narrator-hero Aist (Igor Sergeyev) spends the opening ten minutes making a fuss about a pair of buntings he's keeping in a cage, but there are also drinks containing something called "shedberry" and choral works calling out "dried swamp vibernum", "cadweed" and "knotgrass". Unless distributors Artificial Eye have got some Mirjan linguistics geniuses locked up in a backroom somewhere, I'm guessing this was one of the toughest films to subtitle in some while.

There is also, most bizarrely, bunting of another kind: one of the last tasks the friends perform before wrapping the dead woman's naked form in a rug and loading her in the back of their car is to attach tiny, multicoloured streamers to the corpse's pubic hair, by way of an olde-worlde vajazzle. The precise nature and purpose of what these men are doing, and their eventual destination, is withheld from us, but the images begin to rhyme, making a certain sense of this world. We see the paper strands being attached to a bride on the eve of her wedding night, and then again, trailing from the branches of a tree the car comes to pass. People and landscape start to intertwine: rivers and roads become visual metaphors for life, bridges a means of passing from this world to the next. As this makeshift funeral cortege moves through dead, dying and decaying towns, we sense we are very much à la recherche du temps perdu: only a stop-off at a shopping mall, where the guys pick joylessly at a plate of sushi, reminds us we're anywhere close to the New Russia.

We might raise an eyebrow at the film's maleness: the justification (or excuse) is that this is a supremely bodily film, but even a laddish romp of the Due Date variety might blanch at having one of its leads blurt "All Tanya's holes were working; it was me who unstopped them", which sounds like a boast Vladimir Putin might have made to Silvio Berlusconi over cigars at a G12 summit. Though the narrative hinges on the secret one of the men has been keeping from the other, it's the women who are the real silent souls here, from the factory workers Aist is seen photographing in an early sequence to the mute corpse in the back seat, who doesn't even speak in the flashbacks to her extant days, where she's stripped and washed down, or set to masturbating. There's something almost autoptic about one travelling shot over the naked forms of two prostitutes the guys pick up en route, particularly when they start being poked out of shot - but it's mollified by the suggestion these women (and, indeed, all women) are as great lakes, bodies of water in which men have come to drown their sorrows. (In this, the Russian poetic tradition doesn't seem so very far removed from the Western pop tradition: see "She's a River", "Rain Over Me" or even "Splish Splash".) 

What the film is getting at, I think, is an idea of tradition as largely a male thing, handed down from father to son, and doomed to disappear if there are no children to pass it onto: the photographer recalls the time when, as a child, he watched his eccentric poet dad burying his typewriter in the ice, a prop that returns to the surface in a finale that, somehow, manages to tie up all this imagery very satisfyingly. Silent Souls may, at the last, be about the way certain men love, which is shown to be every bit as funny and just as strange as any of the other customs it observes: adoringly, sometimes crudely, yes, but unconditionally, even mournfully, until death do us part - and as the invocation of those words would suggest, you don't have to be Merjan or Russian, or even really a man, to be moved or touched by that.

Silent Souls opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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