Two buntings—small, sparrow-like birds—sit in a cage on the back of a bike in the opening moments of Aleksai Fedorchenko’s Silent Souls. The man peddling the bike (and narrating the film from beyond the grave) is Aist (Igor Sergeyev), a factory worker and photographer who descends from the Finno-Ugric tribe known as the Meryans. After work one day, Aist agrees to help his boss and friend, Miron (Yuri Tsurilo), perform the last Meryan rites for Miron’s recently departed wife. The two buntings are brought along, flittering and chirping in their cage, on the duo’s trip, while Miron reminisces about the erotic moments with his wife and Aist drifts on to think about rituals he had once indulged in with his father.
Folklore, rituals, and the past weigh heavily on Silent Souls, which is somewhat endemic of films from Fedorchenko’s home country of Russia. Yet, ironically, there is a sense of liberation in the aesthetics of the director’s third feature, which was adapted by Denis Osokin from Aist Sergeyev’s novel The Buntings; a breaking from the Tarkovsky school and an embracement of something, though similarly beautiful, far more anchored with the human process of mystic rituals rather than the metaphysical implications of such acts. Miron and Aist are shown performing the ritualistic steps of death, climaxing with the burning of the wife’s body on a beach, but Fedorchenko makes a point of also tending to other ritualistic processes, such as the rather hypnotic image of threads being tied to a bride’s pubic hair.
Fedorchenko’s chief fascination seems to be with the dichotomies inherent in the modern rehashing of rituals based in folklore and mysticism. On their travels, Miron admits that he knew his wife was meant to be with Aist but it seems to mean very little to Aist, who returns to an image of his father and him rowing on the water. The images and the dialogue work to call upon another Meryan belief, that of a diptych of gods: One representative of water and the other representative of love. In fact, one could see Silent Souls as a visual dialectic between those two gods, but clarity of meaning is (rightly) not a facet of storytelling that Fedorchenko is expressly interested in. Silent Souls, like a great deal of folklore, is ultimately meant to remain something of an elliptical enigma, conveying an odd exhileration punctuated by the closing image of the buntings inexplicably finding themselves freed from their cage.