Director: Aleksey Fedorchenko
Screenwriter: Denis Osokin- based on the eponymous novel by Aist Sergeyev
Runtime: 78 mins.
Australian release date: 17 May 2012
Silent Souls (Ovsyanki), is Aleksey Fedorchenko’s third feature and the winner of the 2011 Asia Pacific Screen Award for Best Screenplay. It is a contemporary tale which harks back to the myths and legends of the ancient Merja tribe who assimilated with the Serbs and then the Russians in the 17th Century. It is set in Western Central Russia, in a harsh environment that is as bleak as the weather.
When Miron’s (Yuriy Tsurilo) wife Tanya (Yuliya Aug) dies, he prepares her body for its final journey according to the old ways dictated by Merjan tradition. This involves one of the most poignant, caring scenes you are likely to view on film - together with his friend, Aist (Igor Sergeev), he cleanses her body with vodka and attaches coloured threads to her pubic hair because custom calls for a body to be adorned as a bride. Then, with the body, they set off for the long road trip to Lake Nero. Their companions are a couple of caged birds (buntings, similar to sparrows) that go along for the ride; they would die if left alone. The birds are known as Ovsyanki in Russian and this was the original title of the film.
Along the way, Miron shares with Aist the most intimate details of his marriage. This is another part of the Merjan tradition that has survived assimilation with the dominant Slav culture. Once they reach the lake, the two men build a funeral pyre and soak Tanya’s body with vodka. There are some amazing scenes in this film that are confronting yet quite simply beautiful. Death is handled in the most sentimental yet dignified manner. This speaks volumes about a race that has survived to this day and one of which we know so little.
The cinematography by Mikhail Krichman - whose work we will see again this June in the soon to be released Elena - is magnificent. He captures the bleakly beautiful environment well, which harmonises with the austere story (perfectly portrayed by the main actors). The fact is that Merjans do not believe in God. Their faith is in Love and Water. Both these elements are revealed in what Fedorchenko declares, “is a road trip to the most undercover corners of the human soul, a requiem to love, a homage to women, a journey during which melancholy and tenderness fuse together.” It is really worth going on this journey to see for yourself.