When a national cinema produces a great director, it isn’t always a good thing. The country’s film industry can get typecast in the minds of American audiences, who have few reference points. Foreign film distribution in the United States is such that countries end up relying on one filmmaker (Andrzej Wajda for Poland) or on one film (City of God for Brazil) to represent them. While watching the Chinese film Perfect Life earlier this year, I found myself thinking repeatedly about the work of the great filmmaker Jia Zhang-ke; and though the film has many similarities to Jia’s work, and though Jia indeed served as an executive producer, I also kept mentally referring to him because he’s the only current Chinese filmmaker with whom I’m especially familiar.
The problem’s at least 30 years old for Russian filmmakers, many of whom struggle to escape Andrei Tarkovsky’s shadow (ironic, considering that Tarkovsky made his last two films in exile). The director’s films like Andrei Rublev, Solaris, and Stalker cast a meditative spell over the theater by pulling you into quiet moments of astounding beauty. They remain so ingrained for Western cinephiles that even the best subsequent Soviet directors, like Aleksandr Sokurov (The Sun), can’t avoid the comparison.
I would like to stand on principle and not compare Aleksei Fedorchenko’s Silent Souls to Tarkovsky’s The Mirror; I would feel especially excited to do so since the New York Film Festival’s other Russian film this year, Sergei Loznitsa’s My Joy, is as nihilistically materialist as many of Tarkovsky’s films are metaphysically transcendent. Tarkovsky’s film details the director’s childhood in a series of fragmented flashbacks, eventually skipping story so that it can watch a woman walk toward a fence in real time, or pleasurably trot down a hall.
Like The Mirror, Fedorchenko’s film offers a middle-aged male narrator who starts with his own immediate experiences and ends discussing the passage of time. The older Andrei never leaves home in The Mirror, though, and the film’s full frame aspect ratio offers a small, tight box suggesting the entirety of a story unfolding within a person’s head. By contrast, Silent Souls’s protagonist spends much of the film inside a car, and the film’s CinemaScope photography offers a wide screen that gives us as much external landscape as internal.
It’s quite a landscape, one Tarkovsky never matched. Beginning with sharp lighting on its protagonist’s face (gradual intonations and gradations of shadow, brown flesh around the nose whitening as you move into the cheeks), Fedorchenko’s camera gives us some of the brightest colors that I have ever seen. Flowers bobble on stalks in golden shades, a fire glows in burnt orange, and when characters wrap a dead woman up in a blanket, all you can notice are the green, yellow, red, and blue.
The dead woman is a friend’s wife that the hero’s helping set out to sea. They’re taking her to a small town on the Neya River, home to the Merjans, a rural ethnic group. The town no longer exists, the narrator tells us, as shots pass abandoned buildings, then empty boats; a man dancing in front of a lighthouse just as suddenly fades away. The husband shares dirty stories while the two men drive by, and the narrator remembers his own women, the nudes shown slowly rolling back and forth on the ground. “A live woman’s body is also a river that carries grief away,” a character says. The memories of women and of the town are being equated; both are lost things remembered with longing and love.
Like a high number of films in this year’s festival, Silent Souls is a ghost story, with flashbacks literally bringing the dead back to life. As in Tarkovsky’s film, it’s not just that people and places are gone, but that the past is gone. Critic Michael Sicinski has argued that the film has Flaherty-like value as a documentary portrait of the Merjans, and though we only catch them in glimpses, the idea that this fiction film can also be a historical record feels valid.
One of the other ghosts in this film is film itself. Though nowhere near as explicitly self-aware as Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is on the subject, Fedorchenko’s film shares with Uncle Boonmee the belief that the fate of a nation and cinema’s fate are linked. They have a point: The fullness of Fedorchenko’s colors can’t yet be caught with DV, which means that different technologies process and develop different memories. Yet though the film feels deeply nostalgic, it also gives its meaning away when the protagonist says of his desire for a lost relationship that “the belief in this was almost as naïve as my need to restore a half-forgotten culture. If something needs to disappear, then so be it.” After the two men set the woman out to sea, the camera stays lingering on the water, whose ripples reverberate, the film’s focus shifting from the depths of the past to the present surface.
The film’s screenplay often shows more surface than depth. Its characters’ direct motivations and pontifications make me think that the film wouldn’t reward multiple views save for the pleasure of looking at it—which is more than enough. The last shots of the water reminded me of the final ocean view in Sokurov’s Russian Ark, which, coming after a 70-minute track through the Hermitage, gives you the sense of the water containing all history. Silent Souls suffers by comparison, but it’s still stunning to look at on its own.
The 48th New York Film festival runs from September 24 to October 10. For a complete schedule, including ticketing information, click here.