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SILENT SOULS (OVSYANKI) (director: Aleksei Fedorchenko; screenwriters: Denis Osokin/based on a novel by Aist Sergeyev; cinematographer: Mikhail Krichman; editor: Sergey Ivanov; music: Andrei Karasyov; cast: Igor Sergeyev (Aist), Yuri Tsurilo (Miron), Yuliya Aug (Tanya), Ivan Tushin (Aist as a child), Leisan Sitdikova (Rima), Olga Dobrina (Julia), Vyacheslav Melechov (Bird seller); Runtime: 75; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Igor Mishin/Meri Nazari; Zeitgeist Films; 2010-Russia-in Russian with English subtitles)
“Overwhelms us with meaningful silence.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The title in Russian “Ovsyanki,” means “Buntings.” Russian director Aleksei Fedorchenko (“The Fourth Dimension”/”The Railway”/”First on the Moon”) overwhelms us with meaningful silence in a splendid but mournful art-house film about death, love and traditional rituals, that’s richly photographed by Mikhail Krichman and strikingly lyrical in its declaration that only ‘love has no end.’ It’s based on a novel by Aist Sergeyev, and is written by Denis Osokin. It has a Hitchcock “The Birds” (1963) concluding moment, that is the road film’s most controversial and provocative moment as it interjects symbolism for freedom and immortality through a surprising turn of events.

Neya is a picturesque West-Central Russian town settled 400 years ago by an ancient Finnish tribe called Merya, by the Neya River, whose traditions and language are long forgotten except for its burial cremation ritual that calls for the ashes to be scattered in the river. The film’s narrator, Aist (Igor Sergeyev), lives there. He’s a taciturn, 40-year-old bachelor, who works in the paper mill as a professional photographer and is an unpublished poet. Aist is a descendant of the Merya people (a Finno-Ugric tribe almost entirely assimilated by Slavs), who still tries to keep up with his family traditions. His deceased oddball father was a poet, who raised him when his mother died when he was a child while giving birth to his still-born sister.

Miron (Yuri Tsurilo), the fifty-something director of the paper mill where Aist works, calls him into his office and tells him his young wife Tanya (Yuliya Aug) died in her sleep last night and that he wants to go with him on a three-day journey to the Volga River spot where he went on his honeymoon, so he can bury his beloved wife in the traditional way of the Merya people. After both men clean the corpse, dress her as a bride and wrap her in a blanket to place her in Miron’s car, the assertive Miron drives and the subdued Aist, who brings along a cage with the two bunting birds he just bought, listens as the grieving husband feel comfortable with his companion so that he opens up and talks freely about intimate things he never told anyone about his wife. We’re told this is called “smoke,” something the Meryans are by tradition encouraged to do until the burial is over.

At the chosen location site, the friends build a homemade pyre and burn her corpse after dousing it with vodka. Flashbacks reveal the love between the gentle, Rubenesque Tanya, far from a beauty, and the appreciative paper mill boss; while other flashbacks show Aist’s life as a child with his strange dad.

We’re further told that for the Meryan people there is no god, only a love for one another. And that the Meryans are committed to be buried in the water, believing it will give them immortality.

There’s great tenderness in the death ceremony, and on the way back the men are propositioned by two women, Julia (Olga Dobrina) and Rima (Leisan Sitdikova), and find comfort in their company before driving home. On the drive home the narrator says “If something is doomed to disappear, then so be it.” As the lyrical folk lore pic tries to tell us, Russians are a people of many different roots and many such links to the past have disappeared, but among the people of Neya some still connect by the funeral ritual with their deceased ancestorsdespite being assimilated.

Though the pic could be faulted by some for its lack of dialogue and failure to keep things logical, it nevertheless is a stunning visual pic–even its bleak landscape images are appealing. Its detailed burial ceremony made me think of the ancient times and believe I had been transported there, even if the pic was set in modern times. The filmmaker magically took us on this meditative ride into a ghost world that’s dourly narrated from the other side and made us believe the spirit world that emerged was for real.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”